The Deep Ocean May Not Save Us

The deep ocean (deeper than 1km) is a CO2 sink. Deep water masses are cold and dense which minimizes vertical mixing with overlying ocean layers. This means what carbon travels to the deep is sequestered away from the atmosphere. Eric Galbraith, author of recent study in Nature, notes

“It’s like a bottle of Italian salad dressing that hasn’t been shaken,” he said. “You can leave it there forever and it just doesn’t mix.”

So how much CO2 can the deep ocean store?

Looking at the last ice age, 20,000 years ago, Galbraith et al. examined how the deep ocean stored CO2 when atmospheric levels dropped by 30%. During the last ice age the movement of the deep ocean was extremely slow and CO2 extremely isolated from the atmosphere. As things warmed, the deep ocean began to lose its ability to sequester CO2.

Galbraith stressed that his research is historical — he can only see what happened before, not what happens next. But he said it may mean that as the Earth becomes warmer, the ocean’s CO2-disposal system could start breaking down.

Dr. M (1801 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.

3 Replies to “The Deep Ocean May Not Save Us”

  1. This is the real time bomb. If the tropical shallow waters ever get warm enough to start dumping the CO2 they’ve been storing, it’s all over but the shouting.

  2. Thats if the methane hydrates that line the coastal shelves don’t all sublime at once from warming ocean temperatures.

    But its been known the CO2 will come up spontaneously when built up enough. It has happened in African lakes with deadly consequences, whole villages asphyxiated, livestock falling down dead where they stand. Eventually the buoyancy of CO2 will be great enough to counter force of pressure from the overlying ocean and will rise.

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