The past two centuries have witnessed a significant rise in the amount of global carbon emissions and subsequent absorption by oceans around the Earth. The global ocean plays a vital role in the Earth's carbon cycle, about 50 times greater than that of the atmosphere. The oceans absorb from the air about half of carbon deposits from fossil-fuel burning sources. The ocean contains the largest pool of carbon on the Earth's surface; however, these carbon concentrations are not distributed equally. The surface of the ocean exchanges carbon with the atmosphere more rapidly because of mixing by winds at the surface, and because the temperature, chemistry, and pressure of water; all of which vary by depth, affecting the solubility of carbon dioxide and carbon-containing ions. In areas of upwelling (where colder water moves to the surface), carbon is released into the atmosphere, whereas in areas of downwelling (where water piles and sinks), carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere. Oceanic upwelling and downwelling illustrate that changes in distribution of water in one area are always accompanied by compensating water changes in another area. This process is called mass continuity.
The speed at which the ocean can exchange carbon with the Earth's atmosphere is important in regulating the pH level (or acidity) of the ocean and its nutrient and chemical stability. Once the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, it combines with water to form carbonic acid and a series of acid-base products. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, global carbon emissions and uptake were in relative balance, which made for a healthy chemical and nutrient stasis. Currently, however, ocean carbon absorption is at a higher rate than its atmospheric exchange capabilities. Although this mediates the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the imbalance has increased production of carbonic acid, which has resulted in a gradual decrease in pH, or the acidification, of ocean water.
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