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Reduced air–sea CO2 exchange in the Atlantic Ocean due to biological surfactants

Nature Geoscience (2018) | Download Citation


Ocean CO2 uptake accounts for 20–40% of the post-industrial sink for anthropogenic CO2. The uptake rate is the product of the CO2 interfacial concentration gradient and its transfer velocity, which is controlled by spatial and temporal variability in near-surface turbulence. This variability complicates CO2 flux estimates and in large part reflects variable sea surface microlayer enrichments in biologically derived surfactants that cause turbulence suppression. Here we present a direct estimate of this surfactant effect on CO2 exchange at the ocean basin scale, with derived relationships between its transfer velocity determined experimentally and total surfactant activity for Atlantic Ocean surface seawaters. We found up to 32% reduction in CO2 exchange relative to surfactant-free water. Applying a relationship between sea surface temperature and total surfactant activity to our results gives monthly estimates of spatially resolved ‘surfactant suppression’ of CO2 exchange. Large areas of reduced CO2 uptake resulted, notably around 20° N, and the magnitude of the Atlantic Ocean CO2 sink for 2014 was decreased by 9%. This direct quantification of the surfactant effect on CO2 uptake at the ocean basin scale offers a framework for further refining estimates of air–sea gas exchange up to the global scale.

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Change history

  • Correction 06 June 2018

    In the version of this Article originally published, in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section the authors neglected to include the following text: “The Surface Ocean CO2 Atlas (SOCAT) is an international effort, endorsed by the International Ocean Carbon Coordination Project (IOCCP), the Surface Ocean Lower Atmosphere Study (SOLAS) and the Integrated Marine Biosphere Research (IMBeR) programme, to deliver a uniformly quality-controlled surface ocean CO2 database. The many researchers and funding agencies responsible for the collection of data and quality control are thanked for their contributions to SOCAT.” This has now been added in the online versions of the Article.


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AMT director A. Rees (Plymouth Marine Laboratory) enabled our participation in JCR cruise 303 (AMT24) and the authors thank the crew and scientists who supported our work. The authors thank the British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC) for calibrated ancillary data, and J. Barnes (Newcastle) and J. Bischoff (Lyell Centre) for laboratory support and cruise mobilization. This work was supported by grants from the Leverhulme Trust to R.C.U.G. (RPG-303) and the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to R.C.U.G. (NE/K00252X/1) and J.D.S. (NE/K002511/1). Both NERC grants are components of RAGNARoCC (Radiatively Active Gases from the North Atlantic Region and Climate Change), which contributes to NERC’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Feedbacks programme ( J.D.S. and I.A. acknowledge additional support from the European Space Agency (grant 4000112091/14/I-LG). R.P. acknowledges support from T. Wagner. This study is a contribution to the international IMBeR project and was supported by UK NERC National Capability funding to Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. This is contribution no. 324 of the AMT programme.

The Surface Ocean CO2 Atlas (SOCAT) is an international effort, endorsed by the International Ocean Carbon Coordination Project (IOCCP), the Surface Ocean Lower Atmosphere Study (SOLAS) and the Integrated Marine Biosphere Research (IMBeR) programme, to deliver a uniformly quality-controlled surface ocean CO2 database. The many researchers and funding agencies responsible for the collection of data and quality control are thanked for their contributions to SOCAT.

Author information


  1. The Lyell Centre, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK

    • Ryan Pereira
  2. College of Engineering, Maths & Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Cornwall, UK

    • Ian Ashton
  3. School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, Newcastle University, Newcastle, UK

    • Bita Sabbaghzadeh
    •  & Robert C. Upstill-Goddard
  4. College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Cornwall, UK

    • Jamie D. Shutler


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R.P. performed the gas exchange experiments. B.S. provided the surfactant measurements. I.A. and J.D.S developed the FluxEngine analysis and ran the model. R.P. and R.C.U.G. conceived the study. All authors discussed the results and developed the project and manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ryan Pereira.

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