Changes in the Carbon Dioxide Content of the Atmosphere and Sea due to Fossil Fuel Combustion

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Bolin, Bert and Erik Eriksson, 1958. Changes in the Carbon Dioxide Content of the Atmosphere and Sea due to Fossil Fuel Combustion. In The Atmosphere and the Sea in Motion: Scientific Contributions to the Rossby Memorial Volume. Bert Bolin, ed. New York, Rockefeller Institute Press, 130–142.

Essay about this article

Bolin and Eriksson brought some early needed clarity to the issue of atmosphere-ocean interactions concerning carbon dioxide. It was widely known in 1958 that the combustion of fossil fuel in the past century had added a considerable amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and the projections were for even more. But was it all remaining in the atmosphere or was part of it being absorbed by the oceans? If the latter were the case, how much could be taken up and how long might it stay sequestered, especially if the oceans warmed? G.S. Callendar (1958) had argued from first principles and by compiling earlier measurements that a 10 percent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide had already occurred in the twentieth century and a 25 percent increase was likely by the year 2000.

No one knew how long a molecule of CO2 might remain in the atmosphere, and estimates of residence times varied from one day to a thousand years. Using measurements of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope absent from fossil fuels and using a crude ocean model, Revelle and Suess (1957) had argued that most of the CO2 released by artificial fuel combustion since the beginning of the industrial revolution had been absorbed by the oceans and that a net increase of only a few percent had occurred. Later in the same paper, however, the authors presented reasons why the increase may be on the order of 10 percent. Revelle and Suess thought that the Callendar Effect was “quite improbable” on its own and was likely augmented by a number of factors, including a slight increase of ocean temperature, a decrease in the carbon content of the biosphere, and possible chemical and organic changes in the oceans. They also called into question Gilbert Plass’s calculation of a 0.36°C warming from CO2, a position Plass regarded as an “attack” on the carbon dioxide climatic theory.

To clarify the issue, Bolin and Eriksson developed a detailed chemical and dynamical model of the short-term exchange of CO2 between the atmosphere and the upper mixed layer of the ocean. They explained the mechanisms of seawater buffering and exchange in clear terms and emphasized what it meant. They also found inaccuracies in the calibration of the “Suess Effect,” the measured decrease in the C14/C12 ratio since 1850. Their model indicated that the surface ocean layer must have taken up less than ten percent of fossil fuel emissions and was acting as a “bottleneck” in the transport of CO2 to the deep sea. Bolin and Eriksson concluded, in agreement with Callendar, that if industrial production indeed climbed exponentially as projected, atmospheric CO2 would probably rise 25 percent or more by the end of the century. Bolin and Eriksson called for better CO2 measurements and better models of the carbon cycle that included carbon reservoirs and fluxes in the deep ocean, the biosphere, and humic soils. The community of geoscientists now began to realize that humanity could not rely upon the oceans to absorb all the emissions of fossil fuels.

Discussion Questions

a. What role do the oceans play in the carbon budget?

b. What is the “Suess Effect” regarding C14 and how might it be influenced by human activity?

c. Discuss the interplay of ocean chemistry, ocean dynamics, and life processes in the carbon cycle.


Bolin, B., 1975. A critical appraisal of models for the carbon cycle. The Physical Basis of Climate and Climate Modelling. GARP Rep. 16, Geneva, ICSU/WMO.

Bolin, B., 1977. Changes of land biota and their importance for the carbon cycle. Science 196, 613-615.

Callendar, G. S., 1958. On the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Tellus 10, 243-248.

Revelle, R. and H. E. Suess, 1957. Carbon Dioxide Exchange between Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO2 During the Past Decades. Tellus 9, 18-27.

Reproduced from The Atmosphere and the Sea in Motion: Scientific Contributions to the Rossby Memorial Volume. Copyright 1958 The Rockefeller University Press.

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