is the ocean a carbon sink
Like a giant sponge, the ocean and the organisms within it have soaked up the carbon dioxide by dissolving it from the air and through photosynthesis. The reason for this is simple: when it comes to carbon dioxide content, the ocean and the atmosphere seek equilibrium. “At the beginning, we thought the important aspect was the increase in atmospheric CO 2 ,” says Le Quéré. Like a giant sponge, the ocean and the organisms within it have soaked up the carbon dioxide by dissolving it from the air and through photosynthesis. The ocean has absorbed 39 percent of the carbon dioxide we have pumped into the air since the Industrial Revolution. These processes form the well-known « ocean carbon pump ». McKinley doesn’t want people to be surprised when the ocean begins behaving differently than in the past, or to use this change as an argument to continue with business as usual. All organic materials that reach the bottom participate in the biological pump and when conditions permit it, they also participate in oil formation. The ocean has absorbed 39 percent of the carbon dioxide we have pumped into the air since the Industrial Revolution. It is less sensitive to disturbances but it is affected on a long-term basis. When they die, they generate a vertical net flux of carbon. The rate at which the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide depends on how much there is in the atmosphere. It is composed of two compartments: a biological pump* which transfers surface carbon towards the seabed via the food web (it is stored there in the long term), and the physical pump* which results from ocean circulation. Her writing has appeared in Sierra Magazine, Outside Online, Smithsonian Magazine, and elsewhere. The scientific community is rather concerned because negative consequences of potential disequilibrium have not been explored yet. This equalization weakened the ocean carbon sink, and illustrated a direct relationship between changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the sink’s behavior. There are myriad unanswered questions about how much of our carbon the ocean will continue to take up—and for how long—but answering them has been a central focus of climate research. Ecosystem restoration remains a priority to improve storage of carbon excessively released into the atmosphere and requires ambitious policies. Nowadays, other carbon sinks come into play: humus storing soils (such as peatlands), some vegetalizing environments (such as forming forests) and of course some biological and physical processes which take place in a marine environment. On the contrary, the use of these resources, considered as fossil, re-injects the carbon they hold into the atmosphere. While these dynamics are undoubtedly key to bear in mind, Goldstein cautions that we are still a long way from having to worry about the ocean releasing the carbon it has trapped through this process. Climate policy and climate science communication, says McKinley, must account for the ocean carbon sink’s pending re-equilibration. “We have not done nearly the climate action that we need to do.”. The other assumption that Le Quéré’s work rattled was the idea that the only way people would change the ocean carbon sink is through increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The sponge, it turns out, isn’t quite so spongy. Drew Higgins “The Ocean Carbon Sink Has Set the Next Political Hurdle,” Hakai Magazine, Nov 9, 2020, accessed November 27th, 2020, https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/the-ocean-carbon-sink-has-set-the-next-political-hurdle/. Also, with ocean acidification, this process could become less efficient because of a lack of available carbonates*. “We should be so lucky to have this problem, because we’re reducing so much atmospheric carbon,” she says. If we cut our carbon emissions, says Galen McKinley, the study’s lead author and a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, “the ocean is going to say, Great, I don’t have to take up as much to reach that equilibrium, and that sink will slow down.”, The ocean carbon sink, she says, isn’t going to keep acting the way it did “when we were just driving [it] so hard by stuffing so much carbon into the atmosphere.”. This modifies physical, chemical and biological equilibriums and may affect the ocean pump. * at the end of the second tome (from 7 to 14), don’t miss our little dictionary ! The longer it takes to cut emissions, the longer this equilibration phase will take, simply because there will be more carbon in the ocean to balance out. More recently, carbon dioxide emissions have decreased slightly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and researchers predict a similar temporary shrinkage of the ocean carbon sink as a result. In the high seas for instance, the planktonic ecosystem is a major player. This uncertainty should encourage us to be more careful and to preserve marine ecosystems. It relies on ecosystems’ good health. In addition, because of the increase in greenhouse gas concentration, the water temperature and its acidity are changing. Cite this Article: These processes can leave traces. When talking about carbon storage, the notion of time is crucial. After long processes and under certain conditions, these sinks have stored carbon for millennia. One recent study, however, suggests that the ocean carbon sink is unexpectedly responsive: as soon as emissions go down, so will the ocean’s uptake. However, these coastal ecosystems cover little surface on a global planet scale. Cooling the ocean, even by a smidge, increases the water’s ability to dissolve carbon dioxide—so it absorbed more. After all, one can easily see the political traps and arguments that could ensue when the ocean stops swallowing carbon dioxide, and even starts spewing it back. The carbon, transferred to the Deep Sea due to ocean circulation, is temporarily removed from the surface cycle but this process is rather poorly quantified. Actually, in high latitudes water stores CO2 more easily because low temperatures facilitate atmospheric CO2 dissolution (hence the importance of Polar Regions in the carbon cycle). Consequently, it can be destabilized and re-emit carbon into the atmosphere. Also, these ecosystems are weakened by coastal urbanization and coastal economic activities. For some scientists, the Deep Sea and its water column may be the largest carbon sink on Earth but its large-scale future is still unknown. The physical pump acts on another time-scale. The biological pump is sensitive to disturbances. Combined with the fact that the ocean had already sucked up more carbon following the Mount Pinatubo eruption, this lessened the difference between the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in the ocean. Coal, oil, natural gases, methane hydrate and limestone are all examples of carbon sinks. It is difficult to determine the quantity of carbon stored by these mechanisms, but it is estimated that the ocean concentrates 50 times more carbon than the atmosphere. Coal, oil, natural gases, methane hydrate and limestone are all examples of carbon sinks. Miriam Goldstein, a biological oceanographer and the director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, agrees that solid science, and investment in scientific research, is key to good climate policy. At the same time, the long-running increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide slowed briefly between 1989 and 1994 because of a temporary plateau in carbon emissions, and because of an increase in the terrestrial carbon sink. This volcanic ash reflected sunlight and temporarily lowered global temperatures. For instance, mangroves, seagrass beds and salt marshes are significant carbon sinks. “A well-designed climate policy should be able to incorporate unexpected results and be able to adapt,” Goldstein says. These last three examples, store at least ten times more carbon than continental forests when they develop by capturing carbon in their calcium skeleton. The carbon cycle is rather complex as it is associated with other cycles which favour global warming. This so-called ocean carbon sink has spared us from the worst terrestrial consequences of soaring atmospheric carbon dioxide—a relief counterbalanced by ocean acidification and other marine side effects. While climate policy and temperature targets do incorporate ocean dynamics, many rely on relatively simplistic ocean models that could use improvement, says McKinley. Once the machine is activated, it will be difficult to stop it. Calcium-containing materials such as coccolithophore, a microscopic one-celled alga, participate in subtracting carbon from the natural cycle.
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