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Enhanced weathering strategies for stabilizing climate and averting ocean acidification

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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Figure 1: Enhanced weathering from pulverized silicate rock additions to the tropics increases CO2 consumption.
Figure 2: Enhanced weathering lowers atmospheric CO2 with projected twenty-first-century climate change.
Figure 3: Enhanced weathering ameliorates future ocean acidification caused by projected twenty-first-century increases in atmospheric CO2.
Figure 4: Enhanced weathering raises the aragonite saturation state of the ocean by 2100.

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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to David J. Beerling.

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Taylor, L., Quirk, J., Thorley, R. et al. Enhanced weathering strategies for stabilizing climate and averting ocean acidification. Nature Clim Change 6, 402–406 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2882

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