The carbonate system at sub-zero temperatures and high ionic strength.

Lead Research Organisation: National Oceanography Centre
Department Name: Science and Technology


Our understanding of the biogeochemical cycling of carbon in the oceans has been revolutionised through our ability to analyse several of the parameters that describe the carbonate system via gas exchange and the aqueous acid-base thermodynamic equilibria. Thus, the individual, or more commonly, combined measurement of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), hydrogen ion concentration (pH), total alkalinity (TA) and the partial pressure of carbon dioxide (pCO2) has provided us with the ability to determine the influence that primary production, respiration, and calcium carbonate precipitation and dissolution have on the chemistry of the oceans.

Although the geographical and temporal data coverage of the CO2 system has increased since the inception of techniques to measure all its directly observable parameters, large gaps still exist in the oceanic data base. Particular black spots are the polar oceans and especially under sea ice cover. This is an important consideration, especially as the polar oceans are experiencing environmental change as a result of ocean acidification, which is particularly rapid in the land-locked Arctic Ocean. In addition, the presence of sea ice adds complexity to the polar environment as it consists of a dynamic environment of numerous inter-connected or isolated micro-habitats that expand and contract during the seasonal cycle of formation and decay of sea ice. The study of the complex, sea ice environment is important as it in now recognized as an active interface in the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere, through which carbon species, transform and migrate. The biogeochemical information about the polar oceans is limited in part due to its relative inaccessibility, especially when there is ice cover, the complexity of the environment and the difficulty in working in harsh conditions, but also due to a lack of appropriate methods to work at these temperatures and knowledge of the change in the value of equilibrium constants used in determining parameters of the CO2 system under these conditions. Thus, our knowledge of the CO2 system at near-zero polar waters and the sub-zero temperatures in the brine enriched micro-habitats of sea ice is currently rudimentary compared with that in oceanic waters where the temperature is above-zero.As not all of the parameters that can describe the CO2 system fully (TA, DIC, pH, pCO2) can be reliably measured in some of the polar environments, this has meant that the value of the unmeasured or unmeasurable parameters must be calculated, a process that requires extrapolation of physical-chemical equations that really should only be used with above-zero temperatures and salinity less than 50. This type of extrapolation of can lead to large differences in the calculated pCO2 and pH. Thus, the aim of our research is to provide the necessary analytical tools and experimental data so that the CO2 system in polar environments can be investigated with the same degree of sophistication as that currently afforded in temperate and tropical temperature and salinity conditions. To be able to achieve this, we have chosen existing methods of measuring pH and pCO2 in ocean waters, which we can reliable modify to measure the same parameters in brine enriched solutions at sub-zero temperatures. Using our high quality measurements, we will determine the coefficients that are essential for the determination of CO2 system and subsequently test the validity of this approach by measuring any 2 (out of 4) directly observable physical-chemical parameters of the CO2 system to predict the remaining two. In the marine community, the use of these constants, tools, and analytical methodology will aid investigation of ongoing and future changes in the CO2 chemistry, carbon-based fluxes, and saturation with respect to calcium carbonate minerals in high latitude oceans, setting important constraints on model predictions of past, present, and future climate excursions.

Planned Impact

Understanding the role of the polar marine environment in the sequestration of carbon dioxide (CO2) is key in constraining past and present climate sensitivity to different forcing factors. This requires complete investigation of the processes that modulate carbon distribution and fluxes in ice-covered polar oceans. Methodological and theoretical constraints have hampered a full examination of the CO2 system in near-freezing seawater and the seawater derived brines found in sea ice.. As a result, data sets often contain only two of the four directly measurable parameters of the CO2 system and scientists have relied on predictive equations to determine the concentration of the other two parameters. But, as yet, we cannot accurately test the veracity of these predictions. The current proposal will deliver practical ways to measure the two least measured parameters of the CO2 system in near-zero and sub-zero temperature conditions. It will also allow the reliable determination of any pair of unmeasured parameters from any pair of measured parameters for the first time in these conditions. Our experimental outcomes will offer a more realistic predictive capacity of the flow of carbon as CO2 gas and dissolved CO2 species in ice-covered high latitude marine environments.
Of our methodological developments, a pH sensing system with excellent performance over a wide temperature range, which has the capacity for miniaturization, will be of benefit to a wide range of users. We will engage directly (through our workshop) and indirectly (through dissemination of our results) with end users to ensure that the impact of our research is fully developed. The marketing potential of the pH sensing system will also result in partnership with companies keen to exploit this technology. Postgraduate students and early career scientists working with the CO2 system will benefit from our proposed workshop, where they will be exposed to the state-of-the-art-technology and topical information by scientific leaders in the field of carbon chemistry. This experience will give participants an appreciation, and will enhance their understanding, of the CO2 system, especially in cold marine environments. The ability of the oceans to sequester CO2 and its relationship to climate change is at the forefront of current scientific and public debate. To unlock a wider engagement of the public with these issues, the PIs will maintain contact with the press office at their university and will publish their research in an accessible format on the web, and in newspaper articles and society newsletters.
Description The project developed technology for evaluating the constants in the CO2 / carbonate system at high salinity and low temperature and then used this technology to constrain these constants
Exploitation Route Parameterisation of the carbonate system in high salinity low temperature brines such as sea ice brine pools. This can be used by models of CO2 exchange in cryospheric environments and thence into global estimates
Sectors Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description (TechOceanS) - Technologies for Ocean Sensing
Amount € 8,975,662 (EUR)
Funding ID 101000858 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 09/2020 
End 09/2024