National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2017

Natural variability and anthropogenic trends in the ocean carbon sink

McKinley, G.A., A.R. Fay, N.S. Lovenduski, and D.J. Pilcher

Annu. Rev. Mar. Sci., 9, 125-150, doi: 10.1146/annurev-marine-010816-060529 (2017)

Since preindustrial times, the ocean has removed from the atmosphere 41% of the carbon emitted by human industrial activities. Despite significant uncertainties, the balance of evidence indicates that the globally integrated rate of ocean carbon uptake is increasing in response to increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The El Niño–Southern Oscillation in the equatorial Pacific dominates interannual variability of the globally integrated sink. Modes of climate variability in high latitudes are correlated with variability in regional carbon sinks, but mechanistic understanding is incomplete. Regional sink variability, combined with sparse sampling, means that the growing oceanic sink cannot yet be directly detected from available surface data. Accurate and precise shipboard observations need to be continued and increasingly complemented with autonomous observations. These data, together with a variety of mechanistic and diagnostic models, are needed for better understanding, long-term monitoring, and future projections of this critical climate regulation service.

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