An ozone hole could be the reason why the Southern Ocean is losing its effectiveness as a carbon sink, writes New Scientist’s Kate Ravilious.
In theory, oceans should absorb more CO2 as levels of the gas in the atmosphere rise.
Measurements show that this is happening in most ocean regions, but strangely not in the Southern Ocean, where carbon absorption has flattened off. Climate models fail to reproduce this puzzling pattern.
The Southern Ocean is a major carbon sink, guzzling around 15 per cent of CO2 emissions.
However, between 1987 and 2004, carbon uptake in the region was reduced by nearly 2.5 billion tonnes – equivalent to the amount of carbon that all the world’s oceans absorb in one year.
To figure out what is going on, Andrew Lenton, from the University of Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris, France, and his colleagues created a coupled ocean and atmosphere climate model, to investigate carbon absorption in oceans. Crucially, they included changes in the concentration of stratospheric ozone since 1975.
By running their model with and without the ozone depletion since 1975, Lenton and his colleagues were able to show that the ozone hole is responsible for the Southern Ocean’s carbon saturation.
The effect could be down to the way decreasing stratospheric ozone and rising greenhouse gases are altering the radiation balance of the Earth’s atmosphere. This has been predicted to alter and strengthen the westerly winds that blow over the Southern Ocean.
“We expected this transition to a windier regime, but it has occurred much earlier than we thought, seemingly because of the ozone hole,” says Lenton.
Stronger surface winds enhance circulation of ocean waters, encouraging carbon-rich waters to rise from the deep, limiting the capability of surface water to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Furthermore, the higher carbon levels in surface waters make them more acidic – bad news for many forms of ocean life, such as coral and squid.
“This result illustrates how complex the chain of cause and effect can be in the Earth system. No one would ever have predicted from first principles that increasing CFCs would have the effect of decreasing uptake of ocean carbon dioxide,” says Andrew Watson, from the University of East Anglia, UK.