World Oceans Day 8 June: The ocean is the most important buffer for CO2 and global warming

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The annual World Oceans day is upon us. If we really want to do something about the effect of additional CO2 emissions on climate change we have to look at the oceans according to marine geologist, Professor Gert-Jan Reichart from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and Utrecht University.

It is well known that since the industrial revolution, greenhouse gas emissions have increased and as a result extra CO2 and heat are released into the atmosphere. But many people don’t know that a large part of that extra CO2 and heat is absorbed by oceans. 97% of the extra heat generated by fossil fuel emissions disappears into the oceans and only 3% is absorbed by the atmosphere, continents and melting ice caps. A similar skewed ratio applies to the amount of CO2. 98% of all CO2 on earth is dissolved in the oceans. If you calculate with the C in CO2 and subtract the carbon that is permanently stored in rocks and sediments, and therefore only look at the active carbon, 95% of it still circulates in the oceans. Only 5% of that biologically available carbon circulates in the atmosphere, the biosphere (plants and animals) and the soil together. So not the forests, but the oceans play by far the largest role in CO2 storage and its climate consequences.

Long-term or permanent buffer

Moreover, the oceans also act as a long-term buffer for the absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere. This is because most of the active carbon goes to the deep sea, where it remains for hundreds of years, while the 5% active carbon in the biosphere is released into the atmosphere after decades, for example because trees are felled, crops are harvested and animals die . While soils also buffer long-term active carbon, their share in the entire carbon cycle is much smaller than that of the oceans.

71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered - Image Credit:  NASA via Wikimedia Commons

71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered - Image Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Professor Reichart states that CO2 from the bottoms and the deep sea will eventually return. Very slowly, but still. If you want to permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere, then it is theoretically possible to influence the carbonate balance in the ocean. By adding alkalinity to seawater, for example with large quantities of crushed rock, you can make the water less acidic so that it can absorb more CO2. Although large-scale intervention in the oceans via geo-engineering is still prohibited, it will only be a matter of time until engineers will be able to work on the climate via the oceans. Before it can cause all kinds of unpredictable effects, it is very important to thoroughly research all ins & outs beforehand.

World Oceans Day

The annual World Oceans Day is on Saturday the 8th of June. This day was set up by the United Nations in response to the 1992 Climate Convention (Earth Summit Rio de Janeiro) to draw international attention to the great role that oceans play in regulating climate, but also as a source of, for example, oxygen and food. To give ocean research the key role it needs to respond to pressing climate change issues, the United Nations is now preparing the global Decade of Ocean Research for Sustainable Development: in the next ten years ocean researchers will work together more intensively worldwide.

Source: The Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research

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