Ocean Carbon Uptake Image

How the oceans absorb carbon dioxide is critical for predicting climate change

carbon chemistry

Figure showing the change in carbon chemistry relative to preindustrial carbon dioxide

carbon chemistry

carbon chemistry

Air-sea gas exchange is a physio-chemical process, primarily controlled by the air-sea difference in gas concentrations and the exchange coefficient, which determines how quickly a molecule of gas can move across the ocean-atmosphere boundary. It takes about one year to equilibrate CO2 in the surface ocean with atmospheric CO2, so it is not unusual to observe large air-sea differences in CO2 concentrations. Most of the differences are caused by variability in the oceans due to biology and ocean circulation. The oceans contain a very large reservoir of carbon that can be exchanged with the atmosphere because the CO2 reacts with water to form carbonic acid and its dissociation products. As atmospheric CO2 increases, the interaction with the surface ocean will change the chemistry of the seawater resulting in ocean acidification.

Evidence suggests that the past and current ocean uptake of human-derived (anthropogenic) CO2 is primarily a physical response to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Whenever the partial pressure of a gas is increased in the atmosphere over a body of water, the gas will diffuse into that water until the partial pressures across the air-water interface are equilibrated. However, because the global carbon cycle is intimately embedded in the physical climate system there exist several feedback loops between the two systems. For example, increasing CO2 modifies the climate which in turn impacts ocean circulation and therefore ocean CO2 uptake. Changes in marine ecosystems resulting from rising CO2 and/or changing climate can also result in changes in air-sea CO2 exchange. These feedbacks can change the role of the oceans in taking up atmospheric CO2 making it very difficult to predict how the ocean carbon cycle will operate in the future.


The PMEL carbon group is committed to documenting the patterns of air-sea CO2 exchange, how they vary over a range of timescales, and what processes control gas exchange in the ocean. Our goal is to better understand ocean carbon system feedbacks and how the role of the ocean in the global carbon cycle is changing.

The PMEL carbon group is involved in several research projects to help us better understand ocean carbon uptake.

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