Nav: Home

Ocean sink for man-made CO2 measured

March 14, 2019

Not all of the CO2 generated during the combustion of fossil fuels remains in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. The ocean and the ecosystems on land take up considerable quantities of these man-made CO? emissions from the atmosphere.

The ocean takes up CO2 in two steps: first, the CO2 dissolves in the surface water. Afterwards, the ocean's overturning circulation distributes it: ocean currents and mixing processes transport the dissolved CO2 from the surface deep into the ocean's interior, where it accumulates over time.

Carbon sink in the ocean

This overturning circulation is the driving force behind the oceanic sink for CO2. The size of this sink is very important for the atmospheric CO2 levels: without this sink, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere and the extent of anthropogenic climate change would be considerably higher.

Determining what share of the man-made CO2 the oceans absorb has long been a priority for climate researchers. An international team of scientists led by Nicolas Gruber, Professor for Environmental Physics at ETH Zurich, has now determined this oceanic sink over a period of 13 years. As reported in the latest issue of Science, the researchers have found that the ocean has taken up from the atmosphere as much as 34 gigatonnes (billions of metric tonnes) of man-made carbon between 1994 and 2007. This figure corresponds to 31 per cent of all anthropogenic CO2 emitted during that time.

The marine sink is intact

This percentage of CO2 taken up by the oceans has remained relatively stable compared to the preceding 200 years, but the absolute quantity has increased substantially. This is because as long as the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rises, the oceanic sink strengthens more or less proportionally: the more CO2 is in the atmosphere, the more is absorbed by the oceans - until it becomes eventually saturated.

So far, that point has not been reached. "Over the examined period, the global ocean continued to take up anthropogenic CO2 at a rate that is congruent with the increase of atmospheric CO2 ," Gruber explains.

These data-based research findings also confirm various earlier, model-based estimates of the ocean sink for man-made CO2. "This is an important insight, giving us confidence that our approaches have been correct," Gruber adds. The results further allow the researchers to draw conclusions about the CO2 sink of the ecosystems on land, which are more difficult to determine.

Regional differences in the absorption rate

While the overall results suggest an intact ocean sink for man-made CO2, the researchers also discovered in the different ocean basins considerable deviations from the uptake expected from the rise in atmospheric CO2. The North Atlantic Ocean, for instance, absorbed 20 per cent less CO2 than expected between 1994 and 2007. "This is probably due to the slowdown of the North Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation in the late 1990s, which itself is most likely a consequence of climate variability," Gruber explains. But this lower sink in the North Atlantic was offset by a considerably greater uptake in the South Atlantic, such that the uptake by the entire Atlantic developed as expected.

The researchers documented similar fluctuations in the Southern Ocean, in the Pacific and in the Indian Ocean. Gruber emphasises: "We learned that the marine sink does not just respond to the increase in atmospheric CO2. Its substantial sensitivity to climate variations suggests a significant potential for feedbacks with the ongoing change in climate."

Results of two surveys

The results are based on a global survey of CO2 and other chemical and physical properties in the various oceans, measured from the surface down to depths of up to 6 kilometres. Scientists from 7 countries participated in the internationally coordinated programme that started in 2003. Globally they carried out more than 50 research cruises up to 2013, which were then synthesized into a global data product.

For their analyses, the researchers used a new statistical method developed by Gruber and his former Ph.D. student, Dominic Clement. This method allowed them to distinguish between the changes in the man-made and the natural CO2 components that make up the changes in the total concentration of dissolved CO2 in the water. Natural CO2 refers to the amount of CO2 that existed in the oceans prior to industrialisation.

Gruber had already participated in a similar study around the turn of the millennium. Using observations obtained from the very first global CO2 survey conducted between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s, that study estimated that the ocean had taken up around 118 gigatonnes of carbon from the beginning of industrialisation around 1800 until 1994. His current team of researchers extended this analysis up to 2007, permitting them not only to establish the budget for man-made CO2 for the 1994 through 2007 period, but also to assess the intactness of the ocean carbon sink.

Increasing CO2 content acidifies marine habitats

By moderating the rate of global warming, the oceanic sink for man-made CO2 provides an important service for humanity, but it has its price: the CO2 dissolved in the ocean acidifies the water. "Our data has shown that this acidification reaches deep into the ocean's interior, extending in part to depths of more than 3000 m," Gruber says.

This can have serious consequences for many marine organisms. Calcium carbonate spontaneously dissolves in acidified environments, which poses a hazard to mussels and corals whose shells and skeletons are made of calcium carbonate. The changing chemical composition of the ocean can also impact physiological processes such as the breathing of fish. Gruber is convinced: "Documenting the chemical changes imparted on the ocean as a result of human activity is crucial, not least to understand the impact of these changes on marine life."
Gruber N et al. The oceanic sink for anthropogenic CO2 from 1994 to 2007. Science, 15. März 2019. DOI: 10.1126/science.aau5153

ETH Zurich

Related Global Warming Articles:

A new study provides a solid evidence for global warming
The new study allows a more accurate assessment of how much heat has accumulated in the ocean (and Earth) system.
Global warming hiatus disproved -- again
UC Berkeley scientists calculated average ocean temperatures from 1999 to 2015, separately using ocean buoys and satellite data, and confirmed the uninterrupted warming trend reported by NOAA in 2015, based on that organization's recalibration of sea surface temperature recordings from ships and buoys.
Report reassesses variations in global warming
Experts at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) have issued a new assessment of temperature trends and variations from the latest available data and analyses.
Clouds are impeding global warming... for now
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers have identified a mechanism that causes low clouds -- and their influence on Earth's energy balance -- to respond differently to global warming depending on their spatial pattern.
Global warming's next surprise: Saltier beaches
Batches of sand from a beach on the Delaware Bay are yielding insights into the powerful impact of temperature rise and evaporation along the shore that are in turn challenging long-held assumptions about what causes beach salinity to fluctuate in coastal zones that support a rich network of sea creatures and plants.
Could global warming's top culprit help crops?
A new study tries to disentangle the complex question of whether rising amounts of carbon dioxide in the air might in some cases help crops.
Evaporation for review -- and with it global warming
The process of evaporation, one of the most widespread on our planet, takes place differently than we once thought -- this has been shown by new computer simulations carried out at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.
Researchers reveal when global warming first appeared
Human caused climate change is increasingly apparent today through multiple lines of evidence.
1,800 years of global ocean cooling halted by global warming
Prior to the advent of human-caused global warming in the 19th century, the surface layer of Earth's oceans had undergone 1,800 years of a steady cooling trend, according to a new study in the Aug.
Global sea levels have risen 6 meters or more with just slight global warming
A new review analyzing three decades of research on the historic effects of melting polar ice sheets found that global sea levels have risen at least six meters, or about 20 feet, above present levels on multiple occasions over the past three million years.

Related Global Warming Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Don't Fear Math
Why do many of us hate, even fear math? Why are we convinced we're bad at it? This hour, TED speakers explore the myths we tell ourselves and how changing our approach can unlock the beauty of math. Guests include budgeting specialist Phylecia Jones, mathematician and educator Dan Finkel, math teacher Eddie Woo, educator Masha Gershman, and radio personality and eternal math nerd Adam Spencer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#517 Life in Plastic, Not Fantastic
Our modern lives run on plastic. It's in the computers and phones we use. It's in our clothing, it wraps our food. It surrounds us every day, and when we throw it out, it's devastating for the environment. This week we air a live show we recorded at the 2019 Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, D.C., where Bethany Brookshire sat down with three plastics researchers - Christina Simkanin, Chelsea Rochman, and Jennifer Provencher - and a live audience to discuss plastics in our oceans. Where they are, where they are going, and what they carry with them. Related links:...