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Finding the Ocean’s Carbon; Adaptation - All Talk and No Action?

Climate Change Alters Oceanic CO2 Uptake

Scientists are trying to figure out how climate change affects carbon dioxide movement into the oceans
Credit: Jens Luedicke, flickr.

When someone mentions increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossils, it usually has to do with there being more of the gas in the atmosphere, and how that helps cause global warming. But the manmade boost of CO2 isn't restricted to the air; the gas can also dissolve into the ocean. Although scientists have been able to keep good track of how much CO2 has been added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, they are much murkier on how much of it has gone into the world's waters and how much more of it the oceans can take.

In theory, CO2 shouldn't go into the oceans as readily as into the atmosphere because movement of gas from air to the water is a bit slow. But this isn't what has been observed. Some parts of the ocean, like the North Atlantic and the western tropical Pacific, have taken up CO2 more quickly than scientists expected. It's not a good thing though; the more CO2 that goes into the ocean, the more the pH drops, or the more acidic the water becomes, which can have a big impact on the health and ecology of marine plants and animals. In other parts of the ocean, like the North and South Pacific, scientists have found that less CO2 has been taken up in the past few hundred years than expected. 

In order to figure out why CO2 levels in the ocean haven't been changing the way scientists predicted, an international research team has analyzed trends in the ocean between 1981 and 2007, taking into account how the global climate has changed during that time. The researchers discovered that factors like wind patterns and ocean temperatures can dictate how much CO2 transfers into the ocean and stays there. They also calculated that, in total, the changes to the global climate in that near 30-year period have reduced the ocean's rate of CO2 uptake by about 12 percent.

So, what this means is, as we continue to put more CO2 in the air, we are changing the global climate, which is, in turn, slowing down the rate at which the oceans absorbs CO2, so that more of it stays in the air. Sounds like a bit of a vicious circle, doesn't it?

The full results of this new study were published online this week in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles.

Report Suggests Need For More Climate Adaptation Research

In the world of medicine, scientists and statisticians regularly compile groups of studies that have been done on a specific topic to see if they can make a more significant conclusion by considering all the data together. Researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Canada have recently taken this same cumulative approach in order to assess what is known about human adaptation to climate change. In a paper published this week in an online version of Global Environmental Change, the scientists reviewed previous studies that looked at specific plans put in place to to prepare for the effects of climate change (like building shore protection to protect against sea level rise) and also at studies of what people have already done to prepare for climate change.

According to the studies they reviewed, the McGill team says that climate adaptation measures are more likely to come in response to short-term or isolated climate events, rather than in response to long-term changes to average climate. This means that unusual but severe weather and storms — like floods, droughts, and heatwaves — stimulate more adaptation development than the slower changes that take place over many decades (like average global temperature changes). But while the researchers used a number of factors to categorize the different human adaptation studies, including whether activities were large (like a national food supply plan) or small (such as a plan to weatherize a house), or whether they were more likely to be adopted by wealthy or poor nations (wealthier nations were more likely to undertake major changes to transportation and infrastructure to prepare for climate change), most of their analysis is unsurprising... except for one detail.

In pulling research studies to review, the authors from McGill discovered 1,741 documents that, in some way, related to “climate change” and “adaptation.” But, when they sifted through all those papers, they found that only 87 of them were about what humans are doing to adapt to climate change. That’s only five percent of the studies. Most of them reported on examples of how nature is vulnerable to climate change, or simply mentioned that adaptation will be important in the future, without mentioning any actual examples of real adaptation projects.

Don't get us wrong; it is important for researchers to study how the natural world will adapt to climate change. And it is also clear that many people (and governments) recognize humans should prepare to live in a warmer world in the future. But this new report also shows that we just don't have much information on how well these adaptation plans are going to determine what projects will be the most effective.

There will no doubt be more studies of adaptation in the future, but it sure would help if some of them happened in time to inform some of the big projects getting underway now.

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