How does ocean biology affect atmospheric pCO2? Theory and models

I. Marinov, M. J. Follows, A. Gnanadesikan, Jorge Louis Sarmiento, R. D. Slater

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61 Scopus citations


This paper examines the sensitivity of atmospheric pCO2 to changes in ocean biology that result in drawdown of nutrients at the ocean surface. We show that the global inventory of preformed nutrients is the key determinant of atmospheric pCO2 and the oceanic carbon storage due to the soft-tissue pump (OCSsoft). We develop a new theory showing that under conditions of perfect equilibrium between atmosphere and ocean, atmospheric pCO2 can be written as a sum of exponential functions of OCSsoft. The theory also demonstrates how the sensitivity of atmospheric pCO2 to changes in the soft-tissue pump depends on the preformed nutrient inventory and on surface buffer chemistry. We validate our theory against simulations of nutrient depletion in a suite of realistic general circulation models (GCMs). The decrease in atmospheric pCO2 following surface nutrient depletion depends on the oceanic circulation in the models. Increasing deep ocean ventilation by increasing vertical mixing or Southern Ocean winds increases the atmospheric pCO2 sensitivity to surface nutrient forcing. Conversely, stratifying the Southern Ocean decreases the atmospheric CO2 sensitivity to surface nutrient depletion. Surface CO2 disequilibrium due to the slow gas exchange with the atmosphere acts to make atmospheric pCO2 more sensitive to nutrient depletion in high-ventilation models and less sensitive to nutrient depletion in low-ventilation models. Our findings have potentially important implications for both past and future climates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberC07032
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Oceans
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 8 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Oceanography
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Atmospheric Science


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