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Home / International News / 2007 / May 2007 / May 12, 2007
Massive ancient CO2 burps from ocean depths have lessons for todays global warming
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Massive ancient CO2 burps from ocean depths have lessons for todays global warming

A research team tracing the origin of the large carbon dioxide increase in Earths atmosphere at the end of the last ice age has detected two ancient burps that originated from the depths of the southern ocean around Antarctica.

Washington, May 12 : A research team tracing the origin of the large carbon dioxide increase in Earth's atmosphere at the end of the last ice age has detected two ancient 'burps' that originated from the depths of the southern ocean around Antarctica.

The study showed that carbon that had built up in the ocean over millennia was released in two big pulses at about 18,000 years ago and 13,000 years ago.

While scientists had since a long time known that as much as 600 billion metric tons of carbon were released into the atmosphere after the last ice age, the new study is the first to clearly track carbon dioxide (CO2) from the deep ocean to upper ocean and atmosphere.

"This is some of the clearest evidence yet that the enormous carbon release into the atmosphere during the last deglaciation was triggered by abrupt changes in deep ocean circulation," said University of Colorado at Boulder researcher Dr. Thomas Marchitto, who jointly led the study with colleague Dr. Scott Lehman, and Kent State Professor of Geology Dr. Joseph Ortiz.

According to the research team, while much of the CO2 released by the ocean after the end of the last ice age about 18,000 years ago was taken up by the re-growth of forests in areas previously covered by ice sheets, enough remained in the atmosphere to pump up CO2 concentrations significantly.

"Today, CO2 levels are higher than at any time in at least the past 650,000 years because of increased fossil fuel burning. The timing of the major CO2 release after the last ice age corresponds closely with deep sea circulation changes caused by ice melting in the North Atlantic at that time.

So our study really underscores ongoing concerns about the ocean's capacity to take up fossil fuel CO2 in the future, since continued warming will almost certainly impact the mode and speed of ocean circulation," said Dr Lehman.

As part of the study, the team analyzed sediment cores from the Pacific Ocean seafloor at a depth of about 2,300 feet off the coast of Baja California using an isotopic "tracer" known as carbon 14 and tracked the escape of carbon from the deep sea through the upper ocean and into the atmosphere during the last 40,000 years.

They found the carbon 14 "age" of the upper ocean water was basically constant over the past 40,000 years, except during the interval following the most recent ice age, when atmospheric CO2 increased dramatically.

Researchers said the study showed that carbon added to the upper ocean and atmosphere at the end of the last ice age was "very old," suggesting it had been stored in the deep ocean and isolated from the atmosphere for thousands of years.

"Since carbon 14 works both as a 'tracer' and a 'clock,' we were able to show that the uptake and release of CO2 by the ocean in the past was intimately linked to how and how fast the ocean circulated," said Dr Marchitto.

"We were able to use carbon 14 as a 'tracer' of water mass age in this case because the record of marine production at this location in the equatorial North Pacific has been previously shown to change in lock-step with a northern hemisphere temperature proxy extracted from ice in Greenland. That allowed us to transfer the age estimates from the Greenland ice to our sediment core from Baja California" said Dr Ortiz.

Scientists said the findings should help them better understand natural carbon dioxide cycles and possible impacts of human-caused climate change.

"This study provides strong indicators of just how intimately coupled the connection between the ocean and atmosphere can be.

The findings should give us pause to consider the impact that fossil fuel release will have on ocean circulation and future climate change," said Dr Ortiz.

"If the oceans were not such a large storage 'sink' for carbon, atmospheric CO2 increases in recent decades would be considerably higher.

Since the uptake of CO2 on Earth's land surface is being offset almost entirely by the cutting and burning of forests, any decrease in the uptake of fossil fuel CO2 by the world's oceans could pose some very serious problems," added Dr Lehman.

Co-authors on the study include Jacqueline Flueckiger of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Alexander van Geen of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

The findings appear in the May 11 online edition of Science.

ANI

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