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North Atlantic Uptake of CO2 Halves Over the Last Decade

A paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research by Dr Ute Schuster and Professor Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia (UK) raises concerns that the oceans might be slowing their uptake of CO2.

Results of their decade-long study in the North Atlantic show that the uptake in this ocean, which is the most intense sink for atmospheric CO2, slowed down dramatically between the mid-nineties and the early 2000s. An earlier study had already identified a slowdown in the sink in the Southern Ocean (earlier post), but the change in the North Atlantic is greater and more sudden, and could be responsible for a substantial proportion of that observed weakening.

The observations were made from merchant ships equipped with automatic instruments for measuring carbon dioxide in the water. Much of the data has come from a container ship carrying bananas from the West Indies to the UK, making a round-trip of the Atlantic every month. The MV Santa Maria, chartered by Geest, has generated more than 90,000 measurements of CO2 in the past few years.

The results show that the uptake by the North Atlantic halved between the mid-90s, when data was first gathered, and 2002-05.

Such large changes are a tremendous surprise. We expected that the uptake would change only slowly because of the ocean’s great mass. We are cautious about attributing this exclusively to human-caused climate change because this uptake has never been measured before, so we have no baseline to compare our results to. Perhaps the ocean uptake is subject to natural ups and downs and it will recover again.

—Ute Schuster

The direction of the change was worrying, she added, and there were some grounds for believing that a saturation of the ocean sink would start to occur.

The speed and size of the change show that we cannot take for granted the ocean sink for the carbon dioxide. Perhaps this is partly a natural oscillation or perhaps it is a response to the recent rapid climate warming. In either case we now know that the sink can change quickly and we need to continue to monitor the ocean uptake.

—Andrew Watson

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Comments

mahonj

If the oceans stop functioning as a carbon sink (or operate at a lower level) we will be in big trouble ...

No idea what to do ... buy a houseboat rather than beach front property.

allen_xl_z

This reminds me of the inadverdent sea surface temperature records of 19th and 20th century ocean steamers. These records were originally produced and kept to document the operations of their steam engines.

gr

"Much of the data has come from a container ship carrying bananas from the West Indies to the UK, making a round-trip of the Atlantic every month."

Clearly making these measurements irrefutable, peer reviewed science.

Jim G.

gr: I detect some sarcasm. Is your point that we need to get data from more boats, or that if this boat carried bananas then the science must be silly?

gavin walsh

""Much of the data has come from a container ship carrying bananas from the West Indies to the UK, making a round-trip of the Atlantic every month."

Clearly making these measurements irrefutable, peer reviewed science."

I do not see what possible bearing the fact that the ship was a banana freighter has on the results, and I especially do not see how that discredits the results in any way at all. The instruments were automated, and if there was a fault with the instruments that still has nothing whatsoever to do with the ship.

Rafael Seidl

I wouldn't be at all surprised if CO2 uptake was subject to substantial natural variation, which may or may not mask an underlying long-term trend. It just underlines that even the best of the current climate prediction models suffer from a lack of basic data on how the atmosphere interacts with the oceans.

A program of data collection involving more than just one ship should help bring more certainty, though it will take quite a few years to bear fruit.

Another useful source of data would be the nuclear navies of the world. They probably haven't collected any data on CO2 concentrations but afaik they do have extensive 3D data sets on salinity and currents. The only reason they don't make it public is that their submarines use this knowledge to hide from their (by now imaginary) enemies. Perhaps there is a way to parse the data statistically and at a large enough length scale such that the precise location of these hiding spots can remain a secret.

jack

A program of data collection involving more than just one ship should help bring more certainty, though it will take quite a few years to bear fruit.

Hehe - nice.

Harvey D

More than 90000 measurements over almost a decade should normally be sufficiant to convince many pessimists. Of course, ten billion measurements over one million years could convince a few more, but it is very difficult to go back that far.

We could multiply measurements, on a continuous basis, with 100+ ships for the next century or more. WMO could be given such a mandate. Results could be published every three years or so.

If more multiple measurements confirm past findings, we may be in for a much greater environmental mutation than expected.

WVhybrid

A program of data collection involving more than just one ship should help bring more certainty, though it will take quite a few years to bear fruit.

Why does it take more than one data point? You can be convicted of drunk driving with one breathalyzer test, you can figure out if someone is pregnant with one test, and how many rocks did Galileo have to drop off of the tower in Pisa to figure out Newtonian gravity? So why does it take more than 90,000 data points to figure out that the transport of CO2 decreases as the concentration approaches the saturation point?

For that matter, why does it take any data at all. A basic understanding of transport phenomena (sophomore year engineering, junior year chemistry, freshman physics, etc.) provides that understanding. Saying you don't believe the data because 90,000 data points is insufficient has a high probability of bunk.

Ed

This one really interested me because I thought all the science of climate change was settled. So now I'm worried that we may have missed something and we may not understand some part of how the world climate system works.

Is there some action we can take to reverse the process? Or do we just wait until the cycle completes?

critta

I don't understand your point Ed. It's not a cycle. The ocean keeps on absorbing CO2 until it's saturated. Once it's saturated, atmospheric CO2 levels accelerate and action on climate change becomes even more critical.

In the meantime shellfish and corals are having trouble forming shells because of the increasing acidity. The science is established and quibbling over the minutiae of methodology is just fiddling while the planet burns.

critta

I don't understand your point Ed. It's not a cycle. The ocean keeps on absorbing CO2 until it's saturated. Once it's saturated, atmospheric CO2 levels accelerate and action on climate change becomes even more critical.

In the meantime shellfish and corals are having trouble forming shells because of the increasing acidity. The science is established and quibbling over the minutiae of methodology is just fiddling while the planet burns.

Ed

critta: Thanks for taking the bait. I've been waiting for the argument that trying to understand the science is pointless when the world is burning up.

My point is that most scientists talk about climate cycles. What if this particular phenomina is one of those climate cycles and has been going on for years before man started driving big V8 iron or using coal to heat his houses?

But let's say you are right and let's talk about action. What do you propose we do and tell me how you know that action is going to make the change you intend?

Science isn't a "shut up and sit down" type of business. It requires real understanding of systems and hypothesis that are proposed and proven or disproven by observations. Those observations in the case of climate may take many years, decades, or centuries. We aren't tuning a car here, we're tuning the planet.

jack

Thanks for taking the bait.

Thanks for trolling, denier.

Andrey

As it is pointed out by Rafael, ocean dynamics (especially CO2 cycle) is surprisingly poor researched and understood so far. Generally ocean has two distinct layers, divided by thermoincline. Upper 200-300m layer is well-mixed and exchanges heat and CO2 with atmosphere very fast, in order of 5-10 years. Deep oceans have much longer mixing period, in the order of 1000 years. This is, actually, explaining why over geological time atmospheric CO2 increase lags 400-800 years after climate warming.

Both US and Russia have extensive data on ocean salinity, temperature, currents, etc. These data is kept secret, because nuclear submarine hiding below thermoincline barrier is practically undetectable by sonar from surface ships.

Decrease in upper layer CO2 concentration does not necessarily means reduced dissolution of atmospheric CO2. Increased concentration of dissolved CO2 in upper ocean layer is consumed by phytoplankton, and dead microorganisms sink to the bottom where their organic carbon is sequestered in sediments. There is interesting article of CO2 buffering capacity of Earth (“All together these buffers give in principle an infinite buffer capacity.”):

http://folk.uio.no/tomvs/esef/esef4.htm

So far, from about 6.8Gt carbon from fossil fuel yearly combustion about half is missing from atmosphere. Part of missing CO2 is consumed by plants, but most of it is ending up in the oceans, and no reduction in this global process is so far detected. Take a look at graphs presented at Wiki:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Global_Carbon_Emission_by_Type.png

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Mauna_Loa_Carbon_Dioxide.png

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Global_Carbon_Emission_by_Type.png

critta

The patronising reply was unnecessary Ed.I actually have a science background and some understanding of climatic cycles. None of those cycles explain the current surge in global temperatures. It seems very unscientific reasoning to appeal to an as yet undiscovered climatic cycle when there is a conclusive link between anthropogenic increases in atmospheric CO2 and rises in global temperature, along with physics to explain why.

Your metaphor about tuning a car is apt. There's no risk in tuning a car to run more cleanly and contrary to the musings of Lomborg et al, energy efficiency saves money anyway. There's not enough space to talk about the policy settings and cultural change necessary to turn things around but I do believe it is both possible and plausible with the political will.

The other point often missed in the whole debate is that fossil fuels are not actually inexhaustible. Peak Oil is close or already passed so our impact on the climate may start to diminish anyway. unless of course we are determined to use up all the coal as a substitute.

It's about good risk management. Your house is unlikely to burn down Ed but I'm sure you still have it insured just in case. You may not be convinced about human impact on the climate but how much better to err on the safe side when you're talking about the future of the planet.

jack

Hey, Ed - I'm not convinced about the sun rising in the east tomorrow. It could just be a cycle.

I'm also not convinced that gravity exists. It could just be a cycle and we'll all fly into space tomorrow.

I'm also not convinced that the Earth rotates. It could just be a cycle.

Also, I started a bonfire last night. Or did I? It could just be a localized hyperheating phenomenon that just coincided with me lighting a match to a bunch of kindling, then adding larger pieces of wood.

I mean, who knows anything?

Best we should all just sit very still and do nothing. We have no idea if any of our actions are good or bad.

Ed

Sorry about coming off patronising and rather than being a denier I'm really a seeker. Just for the record, I think I would stand up as an environmentalist when measured by how I live my life (solar water, bicycle to work, grow some of my own food - my wife put her foot down when I wanted to grow wheat in the front yard).
That said, I think the climate change argument gets lost in the discussion of whether it is real and whether people really care about the planet.
I'm still waiting for someone to say that if we reduce CO2 emmissions by x amount, that there will be a y drop in global warming.
If everyone in the world agrees that climate change threatens our world and there is a critically review formula for fixing it, then let's go for it. Saying we care is great but I'm more interested in action.

litesong

What should we do? We must see that our own inefficiencies is the best place to begin.
Non-believers & believers must see that being more efficient(both personally & business-wise), using less to produce less pollution to accomplish corporate & individual goals is an excellent place to begin. Corporations understand efficiency(often it is hard to accomplish), tho people in their personal lives certainly aren't efficient 100% of the time.

But inefficiencies is the best place to begin for all people, whether we agree or don't agree on global warming or pollution.

gr

"Why does it take more than one data point?"

Because with DUI and pregnancy tests the technology failure rate has been as high as 35% (making certain breathalizer tests inadmissible in court). I'm not a scientist but my understanding of peer review includes the confirmation of data by third party peers measured across matching time frame and conditions.

Increased volcanic activity is warming the oceans and emitting increased levels of CO2. The other major effect of the volcanic activity is increased ocean temps which are in turn causing less CO2 absorbtion. Its a cycle that's been going on for millions of years with earth and can not be controlled by humans. Simple stuff, I don't understand why people keep going round and round about whether or not climate change is happening. The global climate is always in a state of flux. How could it possibly stay constant with so many variables?

aym

"Increased volcanic activity is warming the oceans and emitting increased levels of CO2. The other major effect of the volcanic activity is increased ocean temps which are in turn causing less CO2 absorbtion." ???#@? WTF. Where the heck did this come from? Where's the evidence of increased volcanic activity? It's not reflected in any activity in the surface environment. Sounds like an excuse to try to explain away the decreased capacity by any means.

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