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Southern Ocean is absorbing CO2 more efficiently

Researchers say more work needs to be done to understand the dynamics of the Southern Ocean's carbon sink.

By
Brooks Hays
The Southern Ocean, between South America and Antarctica, is pulling more than its fair share of CO2 from the atmosphere. File photo by NASA/GRACE team/DLR/Ben Holt Sr./UPI
The Southern Ocean, between South America and Antarctica, is pulling more than its fair share of CO2 from the atmosphere. File photo by NASA/GRACE team/DLR/Ben Holt Sr./UPI | License Photo

BOULDER, Colo., Sept. 10 (UPI) -- The vast majority of CO2 emissions released by humans end up in the atmosphere. But not all of the carbon dioxide stays there. Some is sucked into the oceans.

According to two new studies -- published in the journals Geophysical Research Letters and Science -- the Southern Ocean is pulling CO2 out of the air at a much more efficient rate than the rest of the world's saltwater.

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The Southern Ocean, stretching from the bottom of South America to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, boasts some of the roughest seas on Earth. The wind and waves there have taken down many a vessel. As one can imagine, conducting science in the Southern Ocean is no easy task.

But researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Colorado, Columbia University, Switzerland and elsewhere did just that.

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"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," Colm Sweeney, a researcher with NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory and one of the lead scientists on both studies, explained in a press release. "This data set of ocean carbon measurements is the densest ongoing time series in the Southern Ocean."

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Data used by the two teams of researchers was aided by the Antarctic Research Supply Vessel Laurence M. Gould, a supply ship funded by the National Science Foundation. The ship is outfitted with a variety of instruments used to record chemical measurements of the ocean and atmosphere as it ferries goods back and forth from South America to research outfits on Antarctica.

The data show the Southern Ocean is removing large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, a finding that contradicts previous research that suggested the Southern Ocean's carbon sink had slowed to a halt.

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"Although it comprises only 26 percent of the total ocean area, the Southern Ocean has absorbed nearly 40 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide taken up by the global oceans up to the present," said David Munro, a scientist at Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Researchers say more work needs to be done to understand the dynamics of the Southern Ocean's carbon sink, to better predict the future effects of rising carbon concentration in the atmosphere.

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