Abstract

It is well established that the ocean plays an important role in absorbing anthropogenic carbon (Cant) from the atmosphere. Under global warming, Earth system model simulations and theoretical arguments indicate that the capacity of the ocean to absorb Cant will be reduced, with this constituting a positive carbon-climate feedback. Here we apply a suite of sensitivity simulations with a comprehensive Earth system model to demonstrate that the surface waters of the shallow overturning structures (spanning 45°S-45°N) sustain nearly half of the global ocean carbon-climate feedback. The main results reveal a feedback that is initially triggered by warming, but that amplifies over time as Cant invasion enhances the sensitivity of surface pCO2 to further warming, particularly in the warmer season. Importantly, this “heat-carbon feedback” mechanism is distinct from (and significantly weaker than) what one would expect from temperature-controlled solubility perturbations to pCO2 alone. It finds independent confirmation in an additional perturbation experiment with the same Earth system model. There mechanism denial is applied by disallowing the secular trend in the physical state of the ocean under climate change, while simultaneously allowing the effects of heating to impact sea surface pCO2 and thereby CO2 uptake. Re-emergence of Cant along the equator within the shallow overturning circulation plays an important role in the heat-carbon feedback, with the decadal renewal timescale for thermocline waters modulating the feedback response. The results here for 45°S-45°N stand in contrast to the what is found in the high latitudes, where a clear signature of a broader range of driving mechanisms is present.

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