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Researchers to Determine Southern Ocean’s Appetite for Carbon Through Flying Lab

Source: University Corporation for Atmospheric Research/Laura Snider - January 8, 2016 in Science/Tech

Researchers to Determine Southern Ocean’s Appetite for Carbon Through Flying Lab
Graphic: Alison Rockwell/NCAR

BOULDER — A team of scientists is launching a series of research flights this month over the remote Southern Ocean in an effort to better understand just how much carbon dioxide the icy waters are able to lock away.

The ORCAS field campaign—led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)—will give scientists a rare look at how oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged between the air and the seas surrounding Antarctica. The data they collect will help illuminate the role the Southern Ocean plays in soaking up excess carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by humans.

“If we want to better predict the temperature in 50 years, we have to know how much carbon dioxide the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems are going to take up,” said NCAR scientist Britton Stephens, co-lead principal investigator for ORCAS. “Understanding the Southern Ocean’s role is important because ocean circulation there provides a major opportunity for the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the vast reservoir of the deep ocean.”

ORCAS is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs.

“Building on decades of U.S. Antarctic Program research, new questions of global significance continue to emerge,” said Peter Milne, program director of Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences in the Division of Polar Programs. “ORCAS addresses one of those questions: how the Southern Ocean affects global climate by storing, or releasing, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and heat.”

Carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas contributing to human-caused climate change, is continually transferred back and forth between the atmosphere, plants on land, and the oceans. As more carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels, oceans have stepped up the amount they absorb. But it’s unclear whether oceans have the ability to keep pace with continued emissions.

In the Southern Ocean, studies have disagreed about whether the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink by taking up carbon dioxide is speeding up or slowing down. Measurements and air samples collected by ORCAS—which stands for the O2/N2 Ratio and CO2 Airborne Southern Ocean Study—will give scientists critical data to help clarify what’s actually happening in the remote and difficult-to-study region.

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