CIRES-CU-NOAA led research team compile densest carbon data set in Antarctic waters

A research vessel ploughs through the waves, braving the strong westerly winds of the Roaring Forties in the Southern Ocean in order to measure levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in the surface of the ocean. (Nicolas Metzl, LOCEAN/IPSL Laboratory).

Since 2002, the Southern Ocean has been removing more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, according to two new studies. These studies, out today in the journals Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) and Science, make use of millions of ship-based observations and a variety of data analysis techniques to conclude that the Southern Ocean has increasingly taken up more CO2 during the last 13 years. That follows a decade from the early 1990s to 2000s, where evidence suggested the Southern Ocean CO2 sink was weakening.

The global oceans are an important sink for human-released CO2, absorbing nearly a quarter of the total CO2 emissions every year. Of all ocean regions, the Southern Ocean below the 35th parallel south plays a particularly vital role. “Although it comprises only 26 percent of the total ocean area, the Southern Ocean has absorbed nearly 40 percent of all anthropogenic CO2 taken up by the global oceans up to the present,” says David Munro, a scientist at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) and an author on the GRL paper, which also includes researchers from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at CU-Boulder, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

The GRL paper focuses on one region of the Southern Ocean extending from the tip of South America to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (see Figure 1). “The Drake Passage is the windiest, roughest part of the Southern Ocean,” says Colm Sweeney, lead investigator on the Drake Passage study, co-author on both the GRL and Science papers, and a CIRES scientist working in the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL). “The critical element to this study is that we were  able to sustain measurements in this harsh environment as long as we have—both in the summer and the winter, in every year over the last 13 years. This data set of ocean carbon measurements is the densest ongoing time series in the Southern Ocean.”

The team was able to take these long-term measurements by piggybacking instruments on the Antarctic Research Supply Vessel Laurence M. Gould. The National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported Gould, which makes nearly 20 crossings of the Drake Passage each year, transporting people and supplies to and from Antarctic research stations (see Figure 1). For over 13 years, it’s taken chemical measurements of the atmosphere and surface ocean along the way.


By analyzing more than one million surface ocean observations, the researchers could tease out subtle differences between the CO2 trends in the surface ocean and the atmosphere that suggest a strengthening of the carbon sink. This change is most pronounced in the southern half of the Drake Passage during winter (see Figure 2). Although the researchers aren’t sure of the exact mechanism driving these changes, “it’s likely that winter mixing with deep waters that have not had contact with the atmosphere for several hundred years plays an important role,” says Munro.

The Science paper, led by Peter Landschützer at the ETH Zurich, takes a more expansive view of the Southern Ocean. This study uses two innovative methods to analyze a dataset of surface water CO2 spanning almost three decades and covering all of the waters below the 35th parallel south. These data—including Sweeney and Munro’s data from the Drake Passage—also show that the surface water CO2 is increasing slower than atmospheric CO2, a sign that the Southern Ocean as a whole is more efficiently removing carbon from the atmosphere. These results contrast with previous findings that showed that the Southern Ocean CO2 sink was stagnant or weakening from the early 1990s to the early 2000s.

The ARSV Laurence M. Gould makes nearly 20 crossings of the Drake Passage each year. (Colm Sweeney / CIRES & NOAA)

In addition to the Drake Passage measurements, the Science paper uses datasets that represent a significant international collaboration, including CO2 sampling from NOAA’s Ship of Opportunity Program. This program, led by Rik Wanninkhof of NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) who is also a coauthor of the Science paper, is the world’s largest coordinated CO2 sampling operation. Despite all these efforts, the Southern Ocean remains undersampled. “Given the importance of the Southern Ocean to the global oceans’ role in absorbing atmospheric CO2, these studies suggest that we must continue to expand our measurements in this part of the world despite the challenging environment,” says Sweeney.

This study was funded primarily by the NSF and NOAA’s Climate Program Office.

Authors of “Recent evidence for a strengthening CO2 sink in the Southern Ocean from carbonate system measurements in the Drake Passage (2002-2015),” are: David Munro (CU Boulder, INSTAAR and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ATOC), Nicole Lovenduski (CU Boulder, INSTAAR and ATOC), Taro Takahashi (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), Britton Stephens (National Center for Atmospheric Research), Timothy Newberger (CIRES and NOAA), and Colm Sweeney (CIRES and NOAA ESRL Global Monitoring Division).

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU-Boulder.


Originally Published by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, 2015