Decoupled response of ocean acidification to variations in climate sensitivity

It is now well understood that the global surface ocean, whose pH has been reduced by ~0.1 in response to rising atmospheric CO2 since industrialization, will continue to become more acidic as fossil fuel CO2 emissions escalate. However, it is unclear how uncertainties in climate sensitivity to future CO2 emissions will alter the manifestation of ocean acidification. Using an earth system model of intermediate complexity, this study performs a set of simulations that varies equilibrium climate sensitivity by 1.0°–4.5°C for a given CO2 emissions scenario and finds two unexpected and decoupled responses. First, the greater the climate sensitivity, the larger the surface mixed layer acidification signal but the smaller the subsurface acidification. However, taken throughout the ocean, the highest climate sensitivity will paradoxically cause greater global warming while buffering whole-ocean pH by up to 24% on centennial time scales. Second, this study finds a large decoupling between pH and carbonate ion concentration in surface waters whereby these chemical properties show opposite effects under variable climate sensitivity. For every 1°C increase in climate sensitivity, the surface ocean pH reduction grows by 4%, while surface ocean carbonate ion reduction shrinks by 2%. The chemical and spatial decoupling found here highlights the importance of distinguishing the biological impacts of pH and aragonite saturation and understanding the spatial extent of important calcifying biomes so as to truly understand the long-term impacts of ocean acidification.

Matsumoto K. & McNeil B., 2013. Decoupled response of ocean acidification to variations in climate sensitivity. Journal of Climate 26: 1764–1771. Article (subscription required).


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