External Forcing Explains Recent Decadal Variability of the Ocean Carbon Sink

The ocean has absorbed the equivalent of 39% of industrial‐age fossil carbon emissions, significantly modulating the growth rate of atmospheric CO2 and its associated impacts on climate. Despite the importance of the ocean carbon sink to climate, our understanding of the causes of its interannual‐to‐decadal variability remains limited. This hinders our ability to attribute its past behavior and project its future. A key period of interest is the 1990s, when the ocean carbon sink did not grow as expected. Previous explanations of this behavior have focused on variability internal to the ocean or associated with coupled atmosphere/ocean modes. Here, we use an idealized upper ocean box model to illustrate that two external forcings are sufficient to explain the pattern and magnitude of sink variability since the mid‐1980s. First, the global‐scale reduction in the decadal‐average ocean carbon sink in the 1990s is attributable to the slowed growth rate of atmospheric pCO2. The acceleration of atmospheric pCO2 growth after 2001 drove recovery of the sink. Second, the global sea surface temperature response to the 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo explains the timing of the global sink within the 1990s. These results are consistent with previous experiments using ocean hindcast models with variable atmospheric pCO2 and with and without climate variability. The fact that variability in the growth rate of atmospheric pCO2 directly imprints on the ocean sink implies that there will be an immediate reduction in ocean carbon uptake as atmospheric pCO2 responds to cuts in anthropogenic emissions.

Plain Language Summary

Humans have added 440 Pg of fossil fuel carbon to the atmosphere since 1750, driving up the atmospheric CO2 concentration. But not all of this carbon remains in the atmosphere. The ocean has absorbed 39%, substantially mitigating anthropogenic climate change. Though this “ocean carbon sink” is a critical climate process, our understanding of its mechanisms remains limited. Of great interest is the unexplained slow‐down of the ocean carbon sink in the 1990s and a subsequent recovery. In this work, we use a simple globally‐averaged model to show that two processes external to the ocean are sufficient to explain the slowing of the ocean carbon sink in the 1990s. First, a reduced rate of accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere after 1989 reduced the atmosphere–ocean gradient that drives the ocean sink. Second, the eruption of Mt Pinatubo led to changes in ocean temperature that modified the timing of the sink from 1991 to 2001. We illustrate that the most important control on the decade‐averaged magnitude of the ocean sink is variability in the growth rate of atmospheric CO2. This implies that as future fossil fuel emission cuts drive reduced growth of atmospheric CO2, the ocean sink will immediately slow down.


carbon cycle, ocean carbon sink, forced, internal

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181 Mo
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3100 Ko
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How to cite
McKinley Galen A., Fay Amanda R., Eddebbar Yassir A., Gloege Lucas, Lovenduski Nicole S. (2020). External Forcing Explains Recent Decadal Variability of the Ocean Carbon Sink. Agu Advances. 1 (2). e2019AV000149 (10p.). https://doi.org/10.1029/2019AV000149, https://archimer.ifremer.fr/doc/00676/78775/

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