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EGU: North Atlantic Ocean may regain status as carbon sink

The North Atlantic Ocean may still be an active storehouse for atmospheric carbon dioxide, said scientists at the European Geosciences Union here in Vienna yesterday.

Following evidence published last year showing that both the Southern Ocean and North Atlantic Ocean have weakened as carbon sinks in the past two decades, the new results suggest that the trend has recently reversed in the North Atlantic.

Scientists have feared that the weakening trend could be a long-term impact of global warming and that it could be typical of the ocean as a whole, which absorbs an estimated 25 per cent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions yearly. If the ocean switches from a storehouse to a source of the greenhouse gas, this would jeopardise efforts to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.

Speaking at a press conference at the EGU assembly yesterday, Ute Schuster from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK and Christoph Heinze at the University of Bergen, Norway, presented the results of a yearly analysis of carbon dioxide fluxes across the North Atlantic Ocean.

Previously, Schuster and colleagues showed that carbon uptake by the North Atlantic had halved between the mid-1990s and the early 21st century. But further analysis of the data on a year-by-year basis has shown that the uptake of carbon dioxide in the region has been increasing since 2002 and showed an even greater increase, relative to the early 2000s, in 2005.

The researchers caution that the results are preliminary and are not yet published. The coverage was poor in 2006 and they have not yet finished the analyses for 2007, but they say that the results so far indicate that the trend in weakening of the North Atlantic carbon sink is not linear.

The reasons for this variation are unclear. “I personally think we can’t say with confidence that the trend [in weakening sinks] is attributable to [anthropogenic] climate change”, says Schuster. Surface circulation in the North Atlantic has changed in recent years, she says, but these changes could be due to natural climate variability. Specifically, the North Atlantic Oscillation, a large-scale atmospheric pattern that has important impacts on European climate, could be influencing the rate of carbon dioxide uptake.

It seems, however, that the trend of decreasing carbon uptake by the Southern Ocean is continuing, according to evidence presented today at the EGU by Corinne Le Quéré, also at the University of East Anglia, UK. Recent analyses have confirmed that the Southern Ocean sink has been stable or decreasing over more than two decades, says Le Quéré.

Schuster and Heinze say that the new results highlight the need for a sustained effort to monitor carbon dioxide storage in the ocean. Heinze added “These observations are relatively cheap and easy to make but difficult to sustain them as they are relatively new. The EU is helping with funding and we hope it will be sustained. We need to do this both on a European and a global level”.

Olive Heffernan


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