Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Increase in observed net carbon dioxide uptake by land and oceans during the past 50 years

Abstract

One of the greatest sources of uncertainty for future climate predictions is the response of the global carbon cycle to climate change1. Although approximately one-half of total CO2 emissions is at present taken up by combined land and ocean carbon reservoirs2, models predict a decline in future carbon uptake by these reservoirs, resulting in a positive carbon–climate feedback3. Several recent studies suggest that rates of carbon uptake by the land4,5,6 and ocean7,8,9,10 have remained constant or declined in recent decades. Other work, however, has called into question the reported decline11,12,13. Here we use global-scale atmospheric CO2 measurements, CO2 emission inventories and their full range of uncertainties to calculate changes in global CO2 sources and sinks during the past 50 years. Our mass balance analysis shows that net global carbon uptake has increased significantly by about 0.05 billion tonnes of carbon per year and that global carbon uptake doubled, from 2.4 ± 0.8 to 5.0 ± 0.9 billion tonnes per year, between 1960 and 2010. Therefore, it is very unlikely that both land and ocean carbon sinks have decreased on a global scale. Since 1959, approximately 350 billion tonnes of carbon have been emitted by humans to the atmosphere, of which about 55 per cent has moved into the land and oceans. Thus, identifying the mechanisms and locations responsible for increasing global carbon uptake remains a critical challenge in constraining the modern global carbon budget and predicting future carbon–climate interactions.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Trends in the global carbon budget from 1959 to 2010.
Figure 2: Accumulation of carbon emissions in the atmosphere, on land and in the oceans.

References

  1. Meehl, G. A. et al. in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) 792–802 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007)

  2. Schimel, D. S. et al. Recent patterns and mechanisms of carbon exchange by terrestrial ecosystems. Nature 414, 169–172 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Friedlingstein, P. et al. Climate-carbon cycle feedback analysis: results from the C4MIP model intercomparison. J. Clim. 19, 3337–3353 (2006)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Pan, Y. et al. A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science 333, 988–993 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Piao, S. et al. Net carbon dioxide losses of northern ecosystems in response to autumn warming. Nature 451, 49–52 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Zhao, M. & Running, S. W. Drought-induced reduction in global terrestrial net primary production from 2000 through 2009. Science 329, 940–943 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. McKinley, G. A., Fay, A. R., Takahashi, T. & Metzl, N. Convergence of atmospheric and North Atlantic carbon dioxide trends on multidecadal timescales. Nature Geosci. 4, 606–610 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Le Quéré, C. et al. Saturation of the Southern Ocean CO2 sink due to recent climate change. Science 316, 1735–1738 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Schuster, U. & Watson, A. J. A variable and decreasing sink for atmospheric CO2 in the North Atlantic. J. Geophys. Res. 112, C11006 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Le Quéré, C., Takahashi, T., Buitenhuis, E. T., Rödenbeck, C. & Sutherland, S. C. Impact of climate change and variability on the global oceanic sink of CO2 . Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 24, GB4007 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Sarmiento, J. L. et al. Trends and regional distributions of land and ocean carbon sinks. Biogeosciences 7, 2351–2367 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Knorr, W. Is the airborne fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions increasing? Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L21710 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Gloor, M., Sarmiento, J. L. & Gruber, N. What can be learned about carbon cycle climate feedbacks from the CO2 airborne fraction? Atmos. Chem. Phys. 10, 7739–7751 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Boden, T. A., Marland, G. & Andres, R. J. Global, regional, and national fossil-fuel CO2 emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centerhttp://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/overview.html (2010)

  15. BP. Statistical Review of World Energy http://www.bp.com/sectionbodycopy.do?categoryId = 7500&contentId = 7068481 (2011)

  16. European Commission. Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). Europa - EDGAR Overviewhttp://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v = 40 (2009)

  17. Friedlingstein, P. et al. Update on CO2 emissions. Nature Geosci. 3, 811–812 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Stocker, B., Strassmann, K. & Joos, F. Sensitivity of Holocene atmospheric CO2 . Biogeosciences 7, 921–952 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Yang, X., Richardson, T. K. & Jain, A. K. Contributions of secondary forest and nitrogen dynamics to terrestrial carbon uptake. Biogeosciences 7, 3041–3050 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Marland, G., Hamal, K. & Jonas, M. How uncertain are estimates of CO2 emissions? J. Ind. Ecol. 13, 4–7 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Canadell, J. G. et al. Contributions to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 18866–18870 (2007)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Le Quéré, C. et al. Trends in the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide. Nature Geosci. 2, 831–836 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Masarie, K. A. & Tans, P. P. Extension and integration of atmospheric carbon dioxide data into a globally consistent measurement record. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 11593–11610 (1995)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Keeling, C. D. et al. A three dimensional model of atmospheric CO2 transport based on observed winds: 1. Analysis of observational data. Geophys. Monogr. 55, 165–236 (1989)

    Google Scholar 

  25. Griffith, D. W. T., Keeling, C. D., Adams, J. A., Guenther, P. R. & Bacastow, R. B. Calculations of carrier gas effects in non-dispersive infrared analyzers. II. Comparisons with experiment. Tellus 34, 385–397 (1982)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Andrews, A. E. et al. Empirical age spectra for the midlatitude lower stratosphere from in situ observations of CO2: quantitative evidence for a subtropical barrier to horizontal transport. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 10257–10274 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Houghton, R. A. Revised estimates of the annual net flux of carbon to the atmosphere from changes in land use and land management 1850–2000. Tellus B 55, 378–390 (2003)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

A.P.B. was supported by the US National Research Council and the US National Science Foundation. This manuscript benefitted from comments from J. Neff, N. Lovenduski and G. Marland. We also thank K. Masarie for performing the bootstrap calculations on the atmospheric CO2 sampling network. This work would not have been possible without the careful measurements made by scientists at NOAA ESRL and volunteer sample collectors throughout the world.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

All authors identified the need for this analysis. P.P.T. and J.B.M. contributed to the uncertainty analysis, and P.P.T. and A.P.B. devised the Monte Carlo simulations. A.P.B. and C.B.A. wrote the paper with assistance from all other co-authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to A. P. Ballantyne.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Ballantyne, A., Alden, C., Miller, J. et al. Increase in observed net carbon dioxide uptake by land and oceans during the past 50 years. Nature 488, 70–72 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11299

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11299

This article is cited by

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing