Generalised expressions for the response of pH to changes in ocean chemistry

The extent to which oceans are capable of buffering chemical changes resulting from the uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) or other acidifying processes can be quantified using buffer factors. Here, we present general expressions describing the sensitivity of pH, CO2 and other acid-base species to a change in ocean chemistry. These expressions can include as many acid-base systems as desirable, making them suitable for application to, e.g., upwelling regions or nutrient-rich coastal waters. We show that these expressions are fully consistent with previously derived expressions for the Revelle factor and other buffer factors, which only included the carbonate and borate acid-base systems, and provide more accurate values.

We apply our general expressions to contemporary global ocean surface water and possible changes therein by the end of the 21st century. These results show that most sensitivities describing a change in pH are of greater magnitude in a warmer, high-CO2 ocean, indicating a decreased seawater buffering capacity. This trend is driven by the increase in CO2 and slightly moderated by the warming. Respiration-derived carbon dioxide may amplify or attenuate ocean acidification due to rising atmospheric CO2, depending on their relative importance. Our work highlights that, to gain further insight into current and future pH dynamics, it is crucial to properly quantify the various concurrently acting buffering mechanisms.

Hagens M. & Middelburg J. J., in press. Generalised expressions for the response of pH to changes in ocean chemistry. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. Article (subscription required).

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