Scientists Solve Ocean ‘Carbon Sink’ Puzzle



By Robert McSweeney

The oceans are a hugely important “carbon sink,” helping absorb CO2 emissions from human activities. Without them, CO2 would accumulate more quickly in the atmosphere, raising temperatures more quickly.

A new study, published in Nature, finds that recent changes in circulation patterns in the world’s oceans are playing a key role in how much CO2 they take up.

Weakening circulation patterns have boosted how much CO2 the oceans absorb since the 2000s, the researchers said, but there’s no guarantee that this will continue into the future. switch back to a more vigorous state in the next decade. In this case, the changes would be reversed and we would go back to a weaker ocean CO2 sink (like in the 1990s).”

This would lead to a faster accumulation of carbon emissions in the atmosphere—and more rapidly-increasing temperatures.

Human-Caused Warming

The researchers don’t yet know whether the recent weakening of the ocean circulation patterns are caused by natural variability or human-caused warming.

Global warming is expected to have a similar weakening effect on the circulation patterns as has been seen since the 2000s, DeVries said:

“Human CO2 emissions cause warming … of the surface ocean and makes it less dense. At the same time, the warming melts glaciers and ice caps, which pour fresh water into the ocean. This also makes the surface waters less dense. As surface waters get lighter, they are less likely to sink. This weakens the overturning circulation.”

However, at the moment, it’s likely that natural variability in the oceans is the dominant factor, said Prof. Nicolas Gruber, professor of environmental physics at ETH Zürich, who wasn’t involved in the study. He tells Carbon Brief:

“My working hypothesis is that it is natural variability, but only time will tell. I say this because model simulations suggest that the point where the human-caused impact on the ocean carbon sink is clearly separable from natural variability is rather distant in the future.”

Robert McSweeney covers climate science. He holds an MEng in mechanical engineering from the University of Warwick and an MSc in climate change from the University of East Anglia. He previously spent eight years working on climate change projects at the consultancy firm Atkins. Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.

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