Letter | Published:

Enhanced weathering strategies for stabilizing climate and averting ocean acidification

Nature Climate Change volume 6, pages 402406 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

Chemical breakdown of rocks, weathering, is an important but very slow part of the carbon cycle that ultimately leads to CO2 being locked up in carbonates on the ocean floor. Artificial acceleration of this carbon sink via distribution of pulverized silicate rocks across terrestrial landscapes may help offset anthropogenic CO2 emissions1,2,3,4,5. We show that idealized enhanced weathering scenarios over less than a third of tropical land could cause significant drawdown of atmospheric CO2 and ameliorate ocean acidification by 2100. Global carbon cycle modelling6,7,8 driven by ensemble Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) projections of twenty-first-century climate change (RCP8.5, business-as-usual; RCP4.5, medium-level mitigation)9,10 indicates that enhanced weathering could lower atmospheric CO2 by 30–300 ppm by 2100, depending mainly on silicate rock application rate (1 kg or 5 kg m−2 yr−1) and composition. At the higher application rate, end-of-century ocean acidification is reversed under RCP4.5 and reduced by about two-thirds under RCP8.5. Additionally, surface ocean aragonite saturation state, a key control on coral calcification rates, is maintained above 3.5 throughout the low latitudes, thereby helping maintain the viability of tropical coral reef ecosystems11,12,13,14. However, we highlight major issues of cost, social acceptability, and potential unanticipated consequences that will limit utilization and emphasize the need for urgent efforts to phase down fossil fuel emissions15.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Y. Goddéris and P. Renforth for helpful comments on the manuscript, T. Elliot for earlier discussions, and gratefully acknowledge funding through an ERC Advanced grant to D.J.B. (CDREG, 32998). We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (Supplementary Table 1) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

    • Lyla L. Taylor
    • , Joe Quirk
    • , Rachel M. S. Thorley
    •  & David J. Beerling
  2. Earth Institute, Columbia University, 475 Riverside Drive, New York 10027, USA

    • Pushker A. Kharecha
    •  & James Hansen
  3. Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA, 2880 Broadway, New York 10025, USA

    • Pushker A. Kharecha
  4. Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK

    • Andy Ridgwell
  5. Department of Earth Sciences, University of California, Riverside, California 92521, USA

    • Andy Ridgwell
  6. Department of Mathematics, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

    • Mark R. Lomas
  7. Kroto Research Institute, North Campus, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S3 7HQ, UK

    • Steve A. Banwart

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Contributions

D.J.B. conceived the study with input from all co-authors. L.L.T. undertook weathering model development and simulations, J.Q. and R.M.S.T. undertook data analyses, P.A.K. and A.R. provided model set-up support and advice, M.R.L. analysed the CMIP5 climates. D.J.B. led the writing with contributions from all co-authors, especially J.H., A.R., J.Q. and L.L.T.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David J. Beerling.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2882

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