The oceans have absorbed nearly half of the fossil-fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere since pre-industrial times1, causing a measurable reduction in seawater pH and carbonate saturation2. If CO2 emissions continue to rise at current rates, upper-ocean pH will decrease to levels lower than have existed for tens of millions of years and, critically, at a rate of change 100 times greater than at any time over this period3. Recent studies have shown effects of ocean acidification on a variety of marine life forms, in particular calcifying organisms4,5,6. Consequences at the community to ecosystem level, in contrast, are largely unknown. Here we show that dissolved inorganic carbon consumption of a natural plankton community maintained in mesocosm enclosures at initial CO2 partial pressures of 350, 700 and 1,050 μatm increases with rising CO2. The community consumed up to 39% more dissolved inorganic carbon at increased CO2 partial pressures compared to present levels, whereas nutrient uptake remained the same. The stoichiometry of carbon to nitrogen drawdown increased from 6.0 at low CO2 to 8.0 at high CO2, thus exceeding the Redfield carbon:nitrogen ratio of 6.6 in today’s ocean7. This excess carbon consumption was associated with higher loss of organic carbon from the upper layer of the stratified mesocosms. If applicable to the natural environment, the observed responses have implications for a variety of marine biological and biogeochemical processes, and underscore the importance of biologically driven feedbacks in the ocean to global change.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Sabine, C. L. et al. The oceanic sink for anthropogenic CO2 . Science 305, 367–371 (2004)
Feely, R. A. et al. Impact of anthropogenic CO2 on the CaCO3 system in the oceans. Science 305, 362–366 (2004)
Caldeira, K. & Wickett, M. E. Anthropogenic carbon and ocean pH. Nature 425, 365 (2003)
Langdon, C. et al. Effect of elevated CO2 on the community metabolism of an experimental coral reef. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 17, 1011 (2003)
Gattuso, J.-P., Frankignoulle, M., Bourge, I., Romaine, S. & Buddemeier, R. W. Effect of calcium carbonate saturation of seawater on coral calcification. Glob. Planet. Change 18, 37–46 (1998)
Riebesell, U. & Zondervan, I. Rost, B. Tortell, P. D., Zeebe, R. E. & Morel, F. M. M. Reduced calcification in marine plankton in response to increased atmospheric CO2 . Nature 407, 634–637 (2000)
Redfield, A. C., Ketchum, B. H. & Richards, F. A. in The Sea 2nd edn (ed. Hill, M. N.) 26–77 (Wiley, New York, 1963)
Volk, T. & Hoffert, M. I. in The Carbon Cycle and Atmospheric CO2: Natural Variations Archean to Present (eds Sunquist, E. T. & Broecker, W. S.) Monograph Vol. 32 99–110 (Am. Geophys. Union, Washington DC, 1985)
Gruber, N. & Sarmiento, J. L. in The Sea: Biological–Physical Interactions in the Oceans Vol. 12 (eds Robinson, A. R., McCarthy, J. J. & Rothschild, B. J.) 337–399 (Wiley, New York, 2002)
Houghton, J. T. et al. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001)
Raven, J. et al. Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Policy Document 12/05. Roy. Soc. Rep. 12, (2005)
Antia, N. J., McAllister, C. D., Parsons, T. R., Stephens, K. & Strickland, J. D. H. Further measurements of primary production using a large-volume plastic sphere. Limnol. Oceanogr. 8, 166–183 (1963)
Sambrotto, R. N. et al. Elevated consumption of carbon relative to nitrogen in the surface ocean. Nature 363, 248–250 (1993)
Banse, K. Uptake of inorganic carbon and nitrate by marine plankton and the Redfield ratio. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 8, 81–84 (1994)
Engel, A., Thoms, S., Riebesell, U., Rochelle-Newall, E. & Zondervan, I. Polysaccharide aggregation as a potenial sink of marine dissolved organic carbon. Nature 428, 929–932 (2004)
Engel, A. Direct relationship between CO2 uptake and transparent exoploymer particles production in natural phytoplankton. J. Plankton Res. 24, 49–53 (2002)
Heemann, C. Phytoplanktonexsudation in Abhängigkeit von der Meerwasserkarbonatchemie. Thesis, Univ. Bremen. (2002)
Hein, M. & Sand-Jensen, K. CO2 increases oceanic primary production. Nature 388, 526–527 (1997)
Engel, A. et al. Testing the direct effect of CO2 concentration on a bloom of the coccolithophorid Emiliania huxleyi in mesocosm experiments. Limnol. Oceanogr. 50, 493–504 (2005)
Woods, H. A. et al. Temperature and the chemical composition of poikilothermic organisms. Funct. Ecol. 17, 237–245 (2003)
Diehl, S., Berger, S. & Wörhl, R. Flexible algal nutrient stoichiometry mediates environmental influences on phytoplankton and its abiotic resources. Ecology 6, 2931–2945 (2005)
Broecker, W. S. Ocean geochemistry during glacial time. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 46, 1689–1705 (1982)
Toggweiler, J. R. Carbon overconsumption. Nature 363, 210–211 (1993)
Körtzinger, A., Koeve, W., Kähler, P. & Mintrop, L. C:N ratios in the mixed layer during the productive season in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean. Deep-sea Res. I 48, 661–688 (2001)
Sterner, R. W. & Elser, J. J. Ecological Stoichiometry (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 2002)
Wanninkhof, R. & Thoning, K. Measurement of fugacity of CO2 in surface water using continuous and discrete sampling methods. Mar. Chem. 44, 189–205 (1993)
Gran, G. Determination of the equivalence point in potentiometric titrations of seawater with hydrochloric acid. Oceanol. Acta 5, 209–218 (1952)
Johnson, K. M., Williams, P. J., Brandstrom, L. & Sieburth, J. McN. Colometric total carbon analysis for marine studies: automation and calibration. Mar. Chem. 21, 117–133 (1987)
Barlow, R. G., Cummings, D. G. & Gibb, S. W. Improved resolution of mono- and divinyl chlorophylls a and b and zeaxanthin and lutein in phytoplankton extracts using reverse phase C-8 HPLC. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 161, 303–307 (1997)
Mackey, M. D., Mackey, D. J., Higgins, H. W. & Wright, S. W. CHEMTAX — a program for estimating class abundances from chemical markers: application to HPLC measurements of phytoplankton. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 144, 265–283 (1996)
Hansen, H. P. & Koroleff, F. in Methods of seawater analysis 3rd edn (eds Grasshoff, K., Kremling, K. & Ehrhardt, M.) 159–228 (Wiley VCH, Weinheim, 1999)
Holmes, R. M., Aminot, A., Kérouel, R., Hooker, B. A. & Peterson, B. J. A simple and precise method for measuring ammonium in marine and freshwater ecosystems. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 56, 1801–1808 (1999)
Qian, J. & Mopper, K. Automated high-performance, high-temperature combustion total organic carbon analyser. Anal. Chem. 68, 3090–3097 (1996)
Delille, B. et al. Response of primary production and calcification to changes of during experimental blooms of the coccolithophorid Emiliania huxleyi . Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 19, GB2023 (2005)
Kuss, J. & Schneider, B. Chemical enhancement of the CO2 gas exchange at a smooth seawater surface. Mar. Chem. 91, 165–174 (2004)
Zeebe, R. E. & Wolf-Gladrow, D. CO2 in seawater: equilibrium, kinetics, isotopes. Elsevier Oceanogr. Ser. 65, (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2001)
Oschlies, A. Model-derived estimates of new production: new results point towards lower values. Deep-Sea Res. 48, 2173–2197 (2001)
Maier-Reimer, E., Mikolajewicz, V. & Winguth, A. Future ocean uptake of CO2: interaction between ocean circulation and biology. Clim. Dynam. 12, 711–721 (1996)
We thank the participants of the Pelagic Ecosystem CO2 Enrichment study (PeECE III, http://peece.ifm-geomar.de). We acknowledge J. Egge, J. Nejstgaard and the staff of the Espegrend Marine Biological Station for helping to organize and set up the mesocosms. This work was supported by the EU projects CARBOOCEAN ‘Marine carbon sources and sinks assessment’ (GOCE), CABANERA and University of Bergen (LOCUS) funding.
About this article
Cite this article
Riebesell, U., Schulz, K., Bellerby, R. et al. Enhanced biological carbon consumption in a high CO2 ocean. Nature 450, 545–548 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature06267
Nature Climate Change (2021)
Journal of Oceanography (2021)
Roadmap to sustainable carbon-neutral energy and environment: can we cross the barrier of biomass productivity?
Environmental Science and Pollution Research (2021)
Comparisons on the effects of temperature, runoff, and land-cover on carbonate weathering in different karst catchments: insights into the future global carbon cycle
Hydrogeology Journal (2021)
Nature Climate Change (2020)