EGU24-20295, updated on 11 Mar 2024
EGU General Assembly 2024
© Author(s) 2024. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

A water mass transformation method applied to diagnosing ocean carbon uptake

Neill Mackay1, Jan Zika2, Taimoor Sohail2, Tobias Ehmen1, and Andrew Watson1
Neill Mackay et al.
  • 1Department of Geography, University of Exeter, Exeter, United Kingdom
  • 2School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

The ocean is a strong sink for anthropogenic CO2, absorbing around a quarter of emissions since the industrial era. Quantifying the ocean carbon sink is necessary for constraining the global carbon budget; however, discrepancies remain between estimates of the ocean carbon sink over the last 30 years from observation-based data products and those from numerical models. Moreover, larger regional uncertainties highlight the need for a better understanding of the drivers of ocean carbon sink variability, to help improve models and to better constrain future climate projections. A comprehensive understanding of the sink must include knowledge of (1) the air-sea flux of CO2, (2) the accumulation of carbon in the ocean interior, and (3) how it is redistributed within the ocean by changes in the physical circulation. This characterisation is typically achieved using numerical models, which are constrained by resolution and the need to parameterise processes including physical mixing at the sub-grid scale.

We present a novel method for characterising the ocean carbon sink from a combination of oceanographic datasets, and for reconciling our knowledge of the ocean’s uptake of CO2 with that of interior carbon storage rates. Our Optimal Transformation Method (OTM) uses a water mass framework to diagnose the transport and mixing of tracers such as heat, salt, and carbon consistent with observed interior changes and estimates of boundary forcings. The water mass framework has the advantage that the transport and mixing of conservative tracers are diagnosed exactly, with no need for parameterisation. We validate OTM using outputs from a data-assimilating biogeochemical ocean model and demonstrate its ability to recover the model’s ‘true’ air-sea CO2 fluxes when initialised with biased priors. OTM reduces root-mean-squared errors between diagnosed air-sea CO2 fluxes and the model truth from prior to solution by up to 71%, while simultaneously estimating inter-basin transports of heat, freshwater, and carbon consistent with the model. Following successful validation, we apply OTM to a combination of observational data products to diagnose estimates of the ocean’s uptake and redistribution of carbon since 1990, utilising reanalyses of air-sea heat and freshwater fluxes, interior temperature and salinity, air-sea CO2 fluxes, and machine-learning reconstructions of interior ocean carbon.

How to cite: Mackay, N., Zika, J., Sohail, T., Ehmen, T., and Watson, A.: A water mass transformation method applied to diagnosing ocean carbon uptake, EGU General Assembly 2024, Vienna, Austria, 14–19 Apr 2024, EGU24-20295,, 2024.