Arctic marine researcher measures the ocean’s contribution to combating climate change

Brent Else receives federal funding for ground — and ice — breaking research

Brent Else on the CCGS Amundsen during a 2021 expedition to Baffin Bay. Gina Nickoloff

It’s been just over a year since the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act became law, legislating Canada’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. To get to net-zero, the Canadian economy will have to either produce no greenhouse gas emissions or offset the emissions that it does produce.

Earth has built-in ways of naturally offsetting emissions, and Canada’s geography lends itself to one in particular. It’s called the “ocean carbon sink,” and Dr. Brent Else, PhD, is researching how much carbon is being offset by Canada’s 3.57 million square kilometres of Arctic Ocean.

“The ocean carbon sink describes how a large amount of CO2 that humans produce eventually ends up in the ocean,” Else explains. “The common estimate is that the ocean carbon sink offsets about 30 per cent of all CO2 emissions. If we didn’t have the ocean absorbing a significant amount of CO2, then our climate change problems would be a lot worse than they currently are.”

Canada will need to quantify all of its natural carbon sinks to meet its net-zero targets.

Else, associate professor in the Department of Geography in the Faculty of Arts, has been awarded Discovery Grant and Ship Time funding by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to study and measure just how much carbon is being absorbed by the ocean.

Else’s project is one of 96 UCalgary research projects to receive funding through the NSERC Discovery Grant program in spring 2022.

How the ocean locks away carbon

Carbon uptake by the ocean is most effective when CO2 is absorbed by the surface water of the ocean, and then sinks as it cools into the deep sea, where the absorbed CO2 stays locked until it eventually, over hundreds of years, cycles back up to the surface.

“High latitude oceans take up quite a lot of CO2 for their surface area. Cold water is better at absorbing CO2 than warmer water, so the cold areas of the earth’s surface tend to be areas that are stronger CO2 sinks,” Else says.

Else’s research is focused on Foxe Basin, Nunavut, a large area of the Arctic Ocean north of Hudson’s Bay, and Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Map of Foxe Basin and Cambridge Bay
Map of Foxe Basin and Cambridge Bay

There hasn’t been a major oceanographic study done in Foxe Basin for about 50 years. Else is interested in the location because of its scale, and its unique combination of deep sea and shallow continental shelf terrain.

“There’s this theory that shelf areas are important in the global carbon sink,” says Else.
“When CO2 gets absorbed from the atmosphere in these shelf areas, if that’s accompanied by the formation of sea ice and dense sea water, then that dense water might actually be transported deep into the ocean where it’s removed from any further exchange with the atmosphere. So these areas are thought to be very important carbon sinks.”

“It’s nice that the ocean takes up CO2, but that lowers the pH of the ocean, which is this process of ocean acidification,” says Else. Ocean acidification has the potential to harm coral reefs, shelled animals (oysters, snails, etc.), and some types of plankton.

University of Calgary, 17 August 2022. Full article.

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