Lead Authors:
Deborah N. Huntzinger, Northern Arizona University
Abhishek Chatterjee, Universities Space Research Association and NASA Global Modeling and Assimilation Office
Contributing Authors:
David J. P. Moore, University of Arizona
Sara Ohrel, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Benjamin Poulter, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Anthony P. Walker, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
John Dunne, NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
Sarah R. Cooley, Ocean Conservancy
Anna M. Michalak, Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University
Maria Tzortziou, City University of New York
Lori Bruhwiler, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory
Adam Rosenblatt, University of North Florida
Yiqi Luo, Northern Arizona University
Peter J. Marcotullio, Hunter College, City University of New York
Joellen Russell, University of Arizona
Science Lead:
Melanie A. Mayes, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Review Editor:
Tara Hudiburg, University of Idaho
Federal Liaisons:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.
John Schade, National Science Foundation
Karina V. R. Schäfer, National Science Foundation

Future of the North American Carbon Cycle

The ocean continues to play a key role in mitigating climate warming by taking up most of the additional heat in the Earth system and about a third of CO2 emissions (Gleckler et al., 2016; Frölicher et al., 2015). Short- and long-term changes in the ocean carbon cycle depend on the influences of future atmospheric CO2, ocean temperature, and pH on CO2 solubility, changes in ocean circulation, and carbon inputs from land, as well as the response of marine ecosystems to changes in temperature, pH, and nutrient concentrations (Graven 2016; Matear and Hirst 1999; Sabine et al., 2004).

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (United Nations General Assembly 1982), all ocean areas within 200 nautical miles from the coast are considered exclusive economic zones (EEZs; see Ch. 16: Coastal Ocean and Continental Shelves). Taken together, coastal areas (including EEZs) account for 41% of the global ocean area, with North America making up 10% of global coasts. Including all U.S.-inhabited territories in this estimate increases the fraction to 13% (see Ch. 16: Coastal Ocean and Continental Shelves). Connecting terrestrial and oceanic systems, coastal areas are major components of the global carbon cycle (Bauer et al., 2013; Liu et al., 2010; Regnier et al., 2013). The coastal ocean includes rivers, estuaries, tidal wetlands, and the continental shelf; carbon flows within and between these coastal subsystems are substantial (Bauer et al., 2013). Over the past 50 to 100 years, a variety of human activities have shifted the global coastal ocean from being a net source to a net sink of carbon (approximately 0.45 Pg C annually) from the atmosphere (Bauer et al., 2013). However, because carbon processing within coastal systems varies widely in space and time, estimates of carbon flows within and between coastal subsystems are uncertain (Bauer et al., 2013).

Projections from three CMIP5 models—GFDL-ESM2M (Dunne et al., 2013), HadGEM-ESM (Martin et al., 2011), and MIROC-ESM (Watanabe et al., 2011)— were used to estimate a range of historical (1870 to 1995) and future anthropogenic carbon uptake within North American EEZs (about 22.5 × 106 km2). Since 1870, North American EEZs have taken up 2.6 to 3.4 Pg C of anthropogenic carbon. Under the highest emissions scenario (RCP8.5), these regions are projected to take up an additional 10 to 12 Pg C by 2050 and another 17 to 26 Pg C in the second half of this century (2050 to 2100). Climate warming, changing circulation, and acidification are expected to present new pressures for ocean and coastal carbon systems. Great uncertainty persists around projected changes in coastal carbon cycling as atmospheric CO2 rises, challenging quantification of air-sea CO2 fluxes and efforts to detect and attribute these changing fluxes at the regional coastal scale (Lovenduski et al., 2016). Although coastal zones may be sinks for carbon in the postindustrial age, they are so heavily influenced by human activities and terrestrial processes that projecting their future carbon sink or source behavior is difficult (Bauer et al., 2013).

19.5.1 Response of the Ocean and Coastal Carbon Cycle to Rising Atmospheric CO2

Within North America, rising atmospheric CO2 is projected to increase ocean and coastal carbon uptake almost everywhere, particularly in the North Atlantic, which shows the strongest uptake response (see Figure 19.5). Rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations have changed the chemical partitioning of CO2 between the atmosphere and ocean, driving more CO2 into the ocean. While the surface ocean (top 50 m) comes into CO2 equilibrium with the atmosphere on the timescale of years, equilibrium with the deeper, interior ocean depends on circulation and ventilation with the atmosphere, a process that varies from years to millennia. As such, most of the ocean is not in equilibrium with the present-day atmosphere. Thus, current rates of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning are guaranteed to continue ocean warming and acidification (Joos et al., 2011) in the coming decades because of the imbalance between atmospheric CO2 levels and ocean CO2 uptake capacity.

As seawater takes up atmospheric CO2 and heat, its buffering capacity decreases as part of ocean acidification (Egleston et al., 2010; see also Ch. 17: Biogeochemical Effects of Rising Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide). In the future, warmer and more CO2-enriched waters are expected to take up less additional CO2 and be less resistant to changes in pH (Ciais et al., 2013). Models project that under business-as-usual CO2 emissions (RCP8.5), seawater pH is likely to decrease 0.4 to 0.5 pH units by 2100 in the ocean basins bordering North America (Bopp et al., 2013). Conversely, with reduced human-driven CO2 emissions intended to limit global surface temperature increase to 2°C (RCP2.6), seawater pH in North America’s surrounding ocean basins would likely drop about 0.1 pH unit (Bopp et al., 2013). Furthermore, changes in ocean circulation (e.g., weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation; Stouffer et al., 2006) will reduce the vertical transport of carbon into deep ocean layers, thus decreasing the current level of uptake in the North Atlantic. Another mechanism of additional carbon sequestration may occur through enhancement of sinking organic carbon from the surface and subsequent remineralization of this carbon at depth. Under future conditions, models show that phytoplankton and zooplankton populations are likely to shift toward groups that favor higher temperature, greater physical stratification, and elevated CO2 conditions (Bopp et al., 2013; Doney et al., 2009), both in terms of trait diversity within groups (e.g., Dutkiewicz et al., 2013) and in some groups being favored over others (e.g., slow growing, CO2-limited nitrogen fixers; Hutchins et al., 2007). However, knowledge is lacking on the total effects these population shifts will have on mechanisms such as grazing and aggregation that create sinking material and other biogeochemical cycle changes that may indirectly influence carbon cycling and sequestration (e.g., the nitrogen cycle).

19.5.2 Response of the Ocean and Coastal Carbon Cycle to Warming Climate

Contrary to the effects of rising atmospheric CO2 alone, a warming climate is projected to reduce ocean and coastal carbon uptake in most regions within North America (see Figure 19.5). Atmospheric and oceanic warming are projected to increase stratification and slow midlatitude ocean circulation (Vecchi and Soden 2007), decreasing CO2 uptake rates (Schwinger et al., 2014). For example, a reduction in ocean carbon uptake has been linked to a decrease of meridional ocean circulation, convective mixing, and increased stratification in the high latitudes (Matear and Hirst 1999). The impacts, however, are uniquely regional (Crueger et al., 2007), as exemplified in the California Current system where climate warming is expected to shift the upwelling region poleward (Rykaczewski et al., 2015). Along the eastern mid-Atlantic shelf, waters may preferentially warm with the poleward shift in winds and current intensification (Wu et al., 2012). These changes may modify the waters’ ability to take up carbon and modulate the latitudinal extent of natural CO2 outgassing and uptake of atmospheric CO2 along the coast. Both the St. Lawrence estuary bottom waters (Gilbert et al., 2005) and Southern California Bight interior waters (Bograd et al., 2008) have experienced decreases in oxygen content and commensurate increases in the sequestration of remineralized carbon after it sunk from the surface in response to multidecadal climate change. Additional examples of changes in coastal carbon storage and processing and projected changes are provided in Ch. 15: Tidal Wetlands and Estuaries.

Climate-driven warming and changes in precipitation also may have major impacts on the amount (Georgakakos et al., 2014) and composition (Tranvik and Jansson 2002) of future river carbon fluxes into coastal systems. Extreme rainfall and flooding events associated with a changing climate will likely lead to a shift in the timing of carbon delivery to the coastal ocean from terrestrial systems, affecting coastal carbon budgets in the future (Bauer et al., 2013). Enhanced physical erosion due to the increased occurrence of extreme precipitation events may export more particulate organic carbon to the coastal zone, and burial rates of this organic carbon will influence coastal carbon sequestration (Galy et al., 2015). Enhanced erosion is also expected to result from rising sea levels, significantly altering carbon cycling in coastal estuaries in general and wetlands (Kirwan and Megonigal 2013), mangroves (Bouillon et al., 2008), and seagrass beds (Fourqurean et al., 2012) in particular.

Coral reef ecosystems are particularly sensitive to the combination of warming and acidification (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007). In today’s ocean, the formation of calcium carbonate in coral reefs has resulted in a significant loss of alkalinity and buffering capacity. As coral calcification decreases, these ecosystems may shift from removing ocean buffering capacity to supplying it. Similarly, thawing permafrost in the Arctic is expected to release organic carbon whose degradation by microbes is projected to create a positive feedback to climate change (Schuur et al., 2008; see also Ch. 11: Arctic and Boreal Carbon).

Oceanic and coastal systems clearly are continuing to respond to myriad natural and human-driven changes, although long-term variations or the mechanisms influencing them are unclear. These systems remain a high-priority study area for both the North American and global carbon science communities to better understand the vulnerability of the ocean carbon sink to rising levels of atmospheric CO2 and future climate change.

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