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Where is all that CO2 Going?

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All of us have received emails that alarm, frighten, or inspire us. Some promise good luck if we forward them to family and friends. Some describe a dire situation and urge us to write to our government. Others scare us away from common household products. You know the ones I mean.

I have learned to be skeptical when I receive emails that make disturbing claims, since they are often misleading and sometimes downright false. So, whenever an intriguing story comes my way, the first thing I do is check facts. I generally start with the urban legend web site www.snopes.com. Usually I find the story, and usually it turns out to be untrue.

The email message I received the other day about CO2 and the oceans met all the criteria for an urban legend. It alarmed me, it stated frightening facts without being specific, and it urged me to forward the email to everyone I know.

Unfortunately, this one turns out to be true. I had to look beyond www.snopes.com to confirm its veracity, but what I found was indeed alarming and frightening. Here’s the situation.

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Scientists have long been studying the impact of anthropogenic CO2 on the atmosphere. (Anthropogenic CO2 is a fancy term for the carbon dioxide that we humans emit through the burning of fossil fuels, etc.) They figured out early on that not all of this carbon dioxide was ending up in the upper atmosphere, but they didn’t quite know where the rest of it was going. Until now.

The July 16, 2004 issue of the journal Science reported on the most comprehensive study to date of carbon dioxide in the oceans. An international team of scientists from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency), several US universities, and scientific organizations from Canada, Australia, South Korea, Germany, and Spain completed the study. They based their research on a 10-year survey that combined measurements of carbon dioxide with other factors like temperature, salinity, oxygen, etc., in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.

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The survey determined that the oceans have taken up around 118 billion metric tons of anthropogenic carbon dioxide between 1800 and 1994. Basically, what this means is that the oceans have absorbed about 48 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted into the air by humans over the last two centuries.

Since 1800, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by nearly 36%. However, since this number reflected only half of the CO2 that had been emitted during this period, there was room to doubt the urgent need for a reduction in CO2 emissions. There’s no room any more.

The study reported in Science shows that the “missing” CO2 is being absorbed into the oceans. Not surprisingly, scientists warn that biological systems in the upper oceans will be progressively impacted by this increasing uptake of CO2. Richard Feely, a marine chemist with NOAA, along with his colleagues, found that corals, free-swimming algae, and animals on which other marine life feed had more difficulty producing protective calcium carbonate shells at high levels of CO2.

This continually increasing CO2 level, combined with increased salinity and temperature, could substantially and irrevocably alter the oceanic habitat before the end of the century.

Alarming, huh? Frightening, too. We can all help by pushing for more stringent regulations, cleaner fuels, and alternative energies. You can also show your support by visiting www.thepetitionsite.com and searching for Petition number 556516773. Or write to your country’s Oceans and Fisheries Department and urge them to act boldly.

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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

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