Monday, July 28, 2008

Royal Society Discussion Paper, Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Part Two.

The RSC discussion paper explains the division of ocean waters between an upper zone, where calcium carbonate formation is possible, and a colder lower zone, where it is not possible. The fact that mass transport between these zones is very slow is stressed. The paper does not actually give a pH profile of the ocean, but here is one:

(The little dark dots are the data from today; the big circles are attempts to figure out the situation at various times in the past, which is what the paper I sourced this from is about.)

Note that the vast majority of the volume of the ocean is cold, and relatively acidic. This deep ocean is where an enormous amount of carbon is stored. Transport of carbon dioxide out of or into this layer will not be controlled by thermodynamics (i. e., where carbon dioxide it would most dearly love to be), but by kinetics (i. e., how fast it can get there). Thus, it does not matter to this zone whether or not we are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate unparalleled in Earth’s history or not, because that will not control how fast it gets there. It has to run the gauntlet of the warm water- where it may or may not be converted into calcium carbonate- first.

Remember the figures in the last post on how the carbonic acid equilibria change with temperature. I am now going to make the assertion- which I should now go out and try to verify- that the deep ocean is more acidic *because* it is cold.

To qualify this as-yet-unverified assertion of mine, I should say that I have not yet found any data on the pressure dependence of the pKa values in solutions of reasonable ionic strength, which is also likely to be important.

I suggest that the temperature gradient of the ocean is probably what generates the pH profile, and because transport of carbon dioxide into or out of the ocean is slow compared to how much is already there, it is the temperature dependence of the carbonic acid equilibria which control the speciation observed. Note also that the boundary between the carbonate-forming zone and the non-carbonate forming zone, from our figures below showing what the equilibria do, is going to be dependent both on the pH of the upper layers and their temperature.

Now… if climate change means anything, it means the oceans warming up. Heating the ocean and reducing the pH will pull the carbonate/bicarbonate equilibrium in different directions. I don’t know which is likely to be more significant.

Because the historical record does not show carbon dioxide spouting out of the ocean immediately as temperature increases, but lagging about 1000 years, I am not at all worried about degassing of carbon dioxide starting some feedback loop of badness : until that cold lower ocean where most all of the carbonic acid species are sitting warms up, there is no reason for significant amounts of carbon dioxide to leave the ocean. That is, if degassing of the ocean *is* the reason for the increase in carbon dioxide lagging historical temperature changes. It might not be.

No comments: