Learning about the ocean carbon cycle from observational constraints and model simulations of multiple tracers

Long Cao, Atul Jain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A key question in studies of the potential for reducing uncertainty in climate change projections is how additional observations may be used to constrain models. We examine the case of ocean carbon cycle models. The reliability of ocean models in projecting oceanic CO2 uptake is fundamentally dependent on their skills in simulating ocean circulation and air-sea gas exchange. In this study we demonstrate how a model simulation of multiple tracers and utilization of a variety of observational data help us to obtain additional information about the parameterization of ocean circulation and air-sea gas exchange, relative to approaches that use only a single tracer. The benefit of using multiple tracers is based on the fact that individual tracer holds unique information with regard to ocean mixing, circulation, and air-sea gas exchange. In a previous modeling study, we have shown that the simulation of radiocarbon enables us to identify the importance of parameterizing sub-grid scale ocean mixing processes in terms of diffusive mixing along constant density surface (isopycnal mixing) and the inclusion of the effect of mesoscale eddies. In this study we show that the simulation of phosphate, a major macronutrient in the ocean, helps us to detect a weak isopycnal mixing in the upper ocean that does not show up in the radiocarbon simulation. We also show that the simulation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) reveals excessive upwelling in the Southern Ocean, which is also not apparent in radiocarbon simulations. Furthermore, the updated ocean inventory data of man-made radiocarbon produced by nuclear tests (bomb 14C) enable us to recalibrate the rate of air-sea gas exchange. The progressive modifications made in the model based on the simulation of additional tracers and utilization of updated observational data overall improve the model's ability to simulate ocean circulation and air-sea gas exchange, particularly in the Southern Ocean, and has great consequence for projected CO2 uptake. Simulated global ocean uptake of anthropogenic CO2 from pre-industrial time to the present day by both previous and updated models are within the range of observational-based estimates, but with substantial regional difference, especially in the Southern Ocean. By year 2100, the updated model estimated CO2 uptake are 531 and 133 PgC (1PgC=1015 gram carbon) for the global and Southern Ocean respectively, whereas the previous version model estimated values are 540 and 190 PgC.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-66
Number of pages22
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jul 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Atmospheric Science


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