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Carbon caveat

Interactions among microbes suggest oceans could absorb less carbon than expected.

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12:30pm, August 20, 2008

It sounds like a cryptic fortune cookie: He who adds carbon to the ocean will find that it has less.

Adding carbon compounds to ocean water can sometimes affect microbe communities in ways that result in less stored carbon dioxide than has been assumed, a new study published online August 20 in Nature suggests. The oceans’ carbon storage is an important factor in predicting the severity of climate change.

In designing computer simulations of carbon dioxide and its effects on global climate, scientists assume the ocean can absorb a certain amount of the greenhouse gas. These assumptions are based on the idea that other nutrients such as nitrogen determine how much CO2 phytoplankton — the microscopic “plants” of the sea — will absorb from the atmosphere. The new research, while still preliminary, suggests that CO2 absorption by the oceans is much more complex.

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