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Study: Ocean waves play greater role in trapping CO2

The study, “Asymmetric transfer of CO2 across a broken sea surface,” was published on Tuesday in Scientific Reports. It notes that previous studies of the transfer of atmospheric gases into and out of oceans failed to account for the affects of surface-breaking waves.

Scientists have long recognized the role that greenhouse gases generated from human industrial, agriculture and transportation activity play in climate change, particularly the role of sinking anthropogenic carbon dioxide. However, researchers from the University of Southampton Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the National Oceanography Centre and Heriot-Watt University found many bubbles found meters below the ocean surface during windy conditions drive a “large and asymmetrical flux of carbon dioxide” compared to previous studies.

“If the amount of carbon dioxide dissolving into the seas from the atmosphere exactly balanced the amount leaving the seas and entering the atmosphere, we would have a steady state situation,” Tim Leighton, professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics at the University of Southampton, explained, continuing:

“However, our data suggests that in stormy seas the bubble-induced asymmetry in atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolving into the oceans, as compared to previously dissolved carbon dioxide being released back into the atmosphere, is many times greater than scientists currently estimate. The excess CO2, which gas dissolves into stormy seas through bubbles, will increase as the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere increases.”

“The role of bubbles in the air-sea exchange of gases has been of interest for decades, but firm conclusions have been prevented by a lack of adequate data,” added Dr. David Woolf of Heriot-Watt University’s Orkney campus. “Participation in this project has been very rewarding since measurements are finally giving us the information we need.”

The researchers’ new findings hold promise for even better understanding of the role oceans play in contributing to global climate change.

While the U.K. researchers focused on undersea bubbles caused by waves, other scientists have been studying the effects of microscopic particles generated by ocean waves — called aerosols — on the physical properties of clouds.

A research team led by Professor Vicki Grassian at University of California San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography published a 2017 study, “Molecular diversity of sea spray aerosol particles,” which revealed that sea spray from ocean waves contains organic material — what Grassian calls “bio bits” — that affect cloud formation. This and other research are helping scientists better understand and predict the effects of climate change.

“Sea spray aerosol was thought for a long time to be just salt — sodium chloride — and that’s not true,” Grassian told Ensia. “There’s a lot more that comes out of the water — viruses, bacteria, organic compounds, parts of cell walls.”

“There’s a lot of interplay at that air-ocean interface,” Grassian added. “Gases and particles go in and come out of the ocean, so what’s in the ocean is going to affect what gets into the air and vice versa.”

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