As the December Copenhagen climate summit approaches, it’s not surprising that a spate of new climate studies is appearing. In this case a new study presents data and interpretation for the ability of the Earth’s oceans to absorb CO2 – to act as a carbon sink.
The study had several interesting finding, but the two that stand out are the apparent increase in the amount of CO2 absorbed by the Earth’s land masses and biosphere, and more negatively, the finding that the oceans may be decreasing in their carbon sink capability:
Now, the first year-by-year accounting of this mechanism during the industrial era suggests the oceans are struggling to keep up with rising emissions—a finding with potentially wide implications for future climate. The study appears in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, and is expanded upon in a separate website.
“The more carbon dioxide you put in, the more acidic the ocean becomes, reducing its ability to hold CO2″ said the study’s lead author, Samar Khatiwala, an oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Because of this chemical effect, over time, the ocean is expected to become a less efficient sink of manmade carbon. The surprise is that we may already be seeing evidence for this, perhaps compounded by the ocean’s slow circulation in the face of accelerating emissions.”
The study reconstructs the accumulation of industrial carbon in the oceans year by year, from 1765 to 2008. Khatiwala and his colleagues found that uptake rose sharply in the 1950s, as the oceans tried to keep pace with the growth of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. Emissions continued to grow, and by 2000, reached such a pitch that the oceans have since absorbed a declining overall percentage, even though they absorb more each year in absolute tonnage. Today, the oceans hold about 150 billion tons of industrial carbon, the researchers estimate–a third more than in the mid-1990s.
Khatiwala says there are still large uncertainties, but in any case, natural mechanisms cannot be depended upon to mitigate increasing human-produced emissions. “What our ocean study and other recent land studies suggest is that we cannot count on these sinks operating in the future as they have in the past, and keep on subsidizing our ever-growing appetite for fossil fuels,” he said.