The Ocean's Carbon Balance
by Holli Riebeek • design by Robert Simmon • June 30, 2008

The idea seemed simple enough: the more carbon dioxide that people pumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, the more the oceans would absorb. The ocean would continue to soak up more and more carbon dioxide until global warming heated the ocean enough to slow down ocean circulation. Water trapped at the surface would become saturated, at which point, the ocean would slow its carbon uptake. To oceanographers of 30 years ago, the question was less, how will human emissions change the ocean carbon cycle, and more, is the ocean carbon cycle changing yet?

  Photograph of mid-ocean waves.

The question matters because if the ocean starts to take up less carbon because of global warming, more is left in the atmosphere where it can contribute to additional warming. Scientists wanted to understand how the ocean carbon cycle might change so that they could make more accurate predictions about global warming. Thus motivated, oceanographers began a series of research cruises, trolling across the Pacific from Japan to California, from Alaska to Hawaii, and through the North Atlantic from Europe to North America. On shore, others developed computer models.


One of the largest unknowns in our understanding of the greenhouse effect is the role of the oceans as a carbon sink. Much of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels is soaked up by the oceans, but changes in the climate are altering this absorption in surprising ways. (Photograph ©2007 *Fede*.)

  Map of carbon sampling cruise tracks.

After 30 years of research, the question itself hasn’t changed, but the reasoning behind it couldn’t be more different. Oceanographers started out wanting to know if the ocean was keeping up with the amount of carbon dioxide people are putting into the atmosphere. Instead, they found that people aren’t the only players changing the ocean carbon cycle. Over decades, natural cycles in weather and ocean currents alter the rate at which the ocean soaks up and vents carbon dioxide. What’s more, scientists are beginning to find evidence that human-induced changes in the atmosphere also change the rate at which the ocean takes up carbon. In other words, it turns out that the world is not a simple place.

The Measured Ocean

The group surrounds a circular cluster of instruments and 36 three-foot-tall PVC (plastic) bottles, taking turns extracting sea water from the bottles, assembly-line style. It is a deliberate, well-ordered procedure. The glass sample bottles set aside for oxygen samples are filled first, followed by the massive syringe meant for chlorofluorocarbon (freon) samples, and so on, until 10 to 15 different samples have come out of each bottle. Everyone has a task and a place. It’s a social event, a break from the lonely hours each will spend in his or her lab analyzing the samples before the next batch is hauled out of the ocean. It might even be fun. Except that it’s late winter. In the North Pacific. And they are on the deck of a ship, looking at the same faces that they’ve seen day after day for four weeks or more, and they’ll be repeating this procedure again in another 30 nautical miles.


For more than 30 years, research ships have cruised the world’s oceans, measuring carbon dioxide concentrations, ocean temperatures, winds, and other properties. The map shows the paths of research cruises conducted as part of the World Climate Research Programme’s Climate Variability and Predictability project. Cruise measurements—along with those from buoys, drifting floats, orbiting satellites, and land-based weather stations—are beginning to reveal long-term trends to ocean researchers. (Map by Robert Simmon, based on data from Dana Greeley, NOAA.)

  Photograph of the recovery of a sampling rosette aboard the R/V Roger Revelle in the Southern Ocean, February 2008.

“It’s pretty brutal,” says Richard Feely, with the air of a veteran who thoroughly enjoys his work. An oceanographer who studies the ocean carbon cycle at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, he’s been at this sort of thing for almost forty years. Feely is one of a community of oceanographers who have been monitoring Earth’s oceans for decades, trying to figure out how much human-released carbon dioxide the ocean has been soaking up.

For eons, the world’s oceans have been sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and releasing it again in a steady inhale and exhale. The ocean takes up carbon dioxide through photosynthesis by plant-like organisms (phytoplankton), as well as by simple chemistry: carbon dioxide dissolves in water. It reacts with seawater, creating carbonic acid. Carbonic acid releases hydrogen ions, which combine with carbonate in seawater to form bicarbonate, a form of carbon that doesn’t escape the ocean easily.


Crew members aboard the R/V Roger Revelle retrieve a CTD rosette from the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean. As the device is lowered into the ocean, electronic instruments measure salinity, temperature, and depth. Each of the white bottles collects seawater at different depths for detailed analysis. (Photograph ©2008 Brett longworth.)

Graph of carbon dioxide concentration in water versus temperature at 3 different atmospheric concentrations.

As we burn fossil fuels and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels go up, the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide to stay in balance. But this absorption has a price: these reactions lower the water’s pH, meaning it’s more acidic. And the ocean has its limits. As temperatures rise, carbon dioxide leaks out of the ocean like a glass of root beer going flat on a warm day. Carbonate gets used up and has to be re-stocked by upwelling of deeper waters, which are rich in carbonate dissolved from limestone and other rocks.

In the center of the ocean, wind-driven currents bring cool waters and fresh carbonate to the surface. The new water takes up yet more carbon to match the atmosphere, while the old water carries the carbon it has captured into the ocean.


The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in ocean water (y axis) depends on the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (shaded curves) and the temperature of the water (x axis). This simplified graph shows that as atmospheric CO2 increases from pre-industrial levels (blue) to double (2X) the pre-industrial amounts (light green), the ocean CO2 concentration increases as well. However, as water temperature increases, its ability dissolve CO2 decreases. Global warming is expected to reduce the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2, leaving more in the atmosphere…which will lead to even higher temperatures. (Graph by Robert Simmon.)

Diagram of carbon dioxide exchange in the ocean's mixed layer.

In the short term, the ocean absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide into the mixed layer, a thin layer of water with nearly uniform temperature, salinity, and dissolved gases. Wind-driven turbulence maintains the mixed layer by stirring the water near the ocean’s surface. Over the long term, carbon dioxide slowly enters the deep ocean at the bottom of the mixed layer as well in in regions near the poles where cold, salty water sinks to the ocean depths. (NASA illustration by Robert Simmon.)


The warmer the surface water becomes, the harder it is for winds to mix the surface layers with the deeper layers. The ocean settles into layers, or stratifies. Without an infusion of fresh carbonate-rich water from below, the surface water saturates with carbon dioxide. The stagnant water also supports fewer phytoplankton, and carbon dioxide uptake from photosynthesis slows. In short, stratification cuts down the amount of carbon the ocean can take up.

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