Scientists exploring the Northern California coast have, for the first time, uncovered a treasure trove of carbon compacted on the seafloor — a discovery that may help unravel the ocean's power to combat climate change.
A reserve spanning 6,000 square miles of sanctuary from Point Arena in Mendocino County south to Point Año Nuevo in San Mateo County stores 9 million metric tons of carbon on the surface of the seafloor, according to a study released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
The amount of carbon found sitting on the seafloor's first 4 inches equates to the CO2 emissions generated by 7.3 million gas-powered vehicles driven for one year or expended to power 6.4 million homes for a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agencies' greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator.
Researchers stressed that while this is a significant discovery, leaving it undisturbed is crucial in allowing further carbon accumulation.
"This isn't a resource to be utilized, but it's to be kept intact," said Doug George, an ocean scientist at NOAA and the study's co-author.
The findings confirm that the ocean becomes the final resting place for greenery and dead wildlife washed from rivers, as well as marine life that dies and sinks to the seafloor. That results in more carbon being locked away in the oceans, which helps correct the CO2 imbalance in the atmosphere, according to the study.
The study's lead author, Sara Hutto, explained that Earth has a set amount of carbon. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have dug up massive amounts of fossil fuels that took millenniums to form underground. By doing so, carbon is taken out of the planet and burned, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and changing the carbon-to-carbon-dioxide balance.
"We want to make sure that we are not contributing to the climate problem but that we are doing everything we can to enhance the ocean's natural sponge-like ability to absorb carbon dioxide," Hutto said in an interview.
She believes her team's study proves the ocean cannot be ignored when discussing climate solutions. She said the sea is vital, given its ability to hold most of the world's carbon, absorb the heat created by emissions, and produce one-third of the world's oxygen.
"The ocean is a victim of climate change, but it's also one of the many solutions we need to focus on to get ourselves out of this mess," Hutto said.
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