The ocean carbon sink – impacts, vulnerabilities, and challenges

Posted on OA: 15 Dec 2014


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is, next to water vapour, considered to be the most important natural greenhouse gas on Earth. Rapidly rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations caused by human actions such as fossil-fuel burning, land-use change or cement production over the past 250 years have given cause for concern that changes in Earth’s climate system may progress at a much faster pace and larger extent than during the past 20 000 years. Investigating global carbon cycle pathways and finding suitable mitigation strategies has, therefore, become of major concern in many research fields. The oceans have a key role in regulating atmospheric CO2 concentrations and currently take up about 25% of annual anthropogenic carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Questions that yet need to be answered are what the carbon uptake kinetics of the oceans will be in the future and how the increase in oceanic carbon load will affect its ecosystems and their services. This requires comprehensive investigations, including high-quality ocean carbon measurements on different spatial and temporal scales, the management of data in sophisticated data bases, the application of state-of-the-art Earth system models to provide future projections for given emission scenarios as well as a global synthesis and outreach to policy makers. In this paper, the current understanding of the ocean as an important carbon sink is reviewed with respect to these topics. Emphasis is placed on the complex interplay of different physical, chemical, and biological processes that yield both positive and negative air–sea flux values for natural and anthropogenic CO2 as well as on increased CO2 (uptake) as the regulating force of the radiative warming of the atmosphere and the gradual acidification of the oceans. Major future ocean carbon challenges in the fields of ocean observations, modelling, and process research as well as the relevance of other biogeochemical cycles and greenhouse gases are discussed.

Heinze C., Meyer S., Goris N., Anderson L., Steinfeldt R., Chang N., Le Quéré C. & Bakker D. C. E., 2014. The ocean carbon sink – impacts, vulnerabilities, and challenges. Earth System Dynamics Discussions 5:1607-1672. Article.

The full article is also posted under the Reference Materials tab here.