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The ocean absorbs billions of tons of carbon every year, and the process is accelerating, study shows

Evan Bush, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

SEATTLE -- Richard Feely has spent years of his career at sea, casting packages of plastic tubes into its void, and pulling up seawater from its depths while exploring how carbon emissions are changing the world's oceans.

Feely, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, has sampled Antarctic waters, passed through Tahiti and ridden out "huge" storms aboard ocean-class research vessels.

Most days on these scientific cruises, which last more than a month, there's no other boat in sight.

"You see an occasional whale or some birds," he said. "It's a big ocean."

It's hard, tedious work.

But the data collected by Feely and other scientists throughout the world are now telling us just how much carbon humans have put into the ocean and what that might mean for our future.

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Research published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Science analyzed more than 100,000 seawater samples worldwide collected from 1994 to 2007 and taken from nearly every corner and depth of ocean.

The analysis found the oceans are absorbing about 31 percent of the carbon humans are spewing into the world. For context, the weight of the carbon seeping into the ocean each year, on average for the period of study, is roughly equivalent to 2.6 billion Volkswagen Beetle cars, Feely said.

It's "a huge service the oceans are doing," said Feely, who is listed as a co-author on the study. "That significantly reduces global temperature."

But that temperature buffering comes at a cost. The ocean has continued to acidify, and changes in its chemistry are already affecting ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. Adding carbon lowers seawater's pH level, making it more corrosive. The research by Feely and others found the uptake of carbon in the world's oceans has kept pace with worldwide CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

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