Oceans are now absorbing only half the carbon dioxide they did just a decade ago, if new results from the North Atlantic are common to other oceans around the world, Reuters reports.
The change has huge and long-term (1,500 years) implications for the global climate, since the loss of the oceans as a "sink" for carbon means more of it will enter the atmosphere, fueling global warming. Currently, oceans soak up about one fourth of the carbon emitted as pollution from factories, farms, vehicles and other sources.
Scientists are puzzled by the findings and acknowledge that trends that are global in nature, and cycles that take decades or centuries to unfold, are at work. The understanding of the current conditions, therefore, is shadowed by uncertainties.
Despite that, the lead author of the study called the results of a five-year study "alarming." "Oceans are like a 'slow-mixing machine.'" Reuters reports. "Carbon absorbed in the North Atlantic takes around 1,500 years to circulate around the world's seas. This means changes to their fragile balance could be felt long into the future."
Besides the implications for the climate, the absorption of massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the oceans has a direct effect on the water and sea life. Carbon dioxide turns water more acidic, and already some waters are so acidic that certain plankton at the base of the oceanic food chain cannot build calcium carbonate shells. The loss of these species could ripple through the ecosystem, all the way to humans.
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