Warming up, turning sour, losing breath: ocean biogeochemistry under global change

In the coming decades and centuries, the ocean’s biogeochemical cycles and ecosystems will become increasingly stressed by at least three independent factors. Rising temperatures, ocean acidification and ocean deoxygenation will cause substantial changes in the physical, chemical and biological environment, which will then affect the ocean’s biogeochemical cycles and ecosystems in ways that we are only beginning to fathom. Ocean warming will not only affect organisms and biogeochemical cycles directly, but will also increase upper ocean stratification. The changes in the ocean’s carbonate chemistry induced by the uptake of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) (i.e. ocean acidification) will probably affect many organisms and processes, although in ways that are currently not well understood. Ocean deoxygenation, i.e. the loss of dissolved oxygen (O2) from the ocean, is bound to occur in a warming and more stratified ocean, causing stress to macro-organisms that critically depend on sufficient levels of oxygen. These three stressors—warming, acidification and deoxygenation—will tend to operate globally, although with distinct regional differences. The impacts of ocean acidification tend to be strongest in the high latitudes, whereas the low-oxygen regions of the low latitudes are most vulnerable to ocean deoxygenation. Specific regions, such as the eastern boundary upwelling systems, will be strongly affected by all three stressors, making them potential hotspots for change. Of additional concern are synergistic effects, such as ocean acidification-induced changes in the type and magnitude of the organic matter exported to the ocean’s interior, which then might cause substantial changes in the oxygen concentration there. Ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation are essentially irreversible on centennial time scales, i.e. once these changes have occurred, it will take centuries for the ocean to recover. With the emission of CO2 being the primary driver behind all three stressors, the primary mitigation strategy is to reduce these emissions.

Gruber N., 2011. Warming up, turning sour, losing breath: ocean biogeochemistry under global change. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369 (1943): 1980-1996. Article.


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