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posted on 31.05.2021, 23:54 by Rachel Corran

The Southern Ocean is the largest ocean carbon sink region. However, its trend of increasing carbon uptake has shown variability over recent decades. It is important to understand the underlying mechanisms of anthropogenic carbon uptake such that the future response of the Southern Ocean carbon sink under climate forcing can be predicted.

The carbon uptake of the Southern Ocean is characterised by the balance of outgassing of CO2 from carbon-rich deep water and sequestration of anthropogenic carbon into surface waters. Atmospheric radiocarbon dioxide (Del14CO2) in the Southern Hemisphere is sensitive to the release of CO2 from the upwelling of ‘old’ 14C-depleted carbon-rich deep water at high southern latitudes, but is insensitive to CO2 uptake into the ocean. Thus Del14CO2 has the potential to be used as a tracer of the upwelling observed, thereby isolating the outgassing carbon component.

The Southern Ocean Region has limited atmospheric Del14CO2 measurements, with sparse long-term sampling sites and few shipboard flask measurements. Therefore in this PhD project I exploit annual growth tree rings, which record the Del14C content of atmospheric CO2, to reconstruct Del14CO2 back in time. Within tree ring sample pretreatment for 14C measurement I automate the organic solvent wash method at the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory. I present new annual-resolution reconstructions of atmospheric Del14CO2 from tree rings, from coastal sites in New Zealand and Chile, spanning a latitudinal range of 44 S to 55 S, for the period of interest, 1985 – 2015. Data quality analysis using a range of replicate 14C measurements conducted within this project leads to assignment of apx 1.9 ‰ uncertainties for all results, in line with atmospheric measurements.

In this project I also develop a harmonised dataset of atmospheric Del14CO2 measurements in the Southern Hemisphere for this period from different research groups, including the new tree ring Del14CO2 records alongside existing data. The harmonised atmospheric Del14CO2 dataset has a wide range of applications, but specifically here allows investigation of temporal and spatial variability of atmospheric Del14CO2 over the Southern Ocean over recent decades, thereby also considering the role of upwelling in recent Southern Ocean carbon sink variability. Backward trajectories are produced for the tree ring sites from an atmospheric transport model, to help inform interpretation of results.

Over recent decades a latitudinal gradient of 3.7 ‰ is observed between 41 S and 53 S in the New Zealand sector, with a smaller gradient of 1.6 ‰ between 48 S and 55S in the Chile sector. This is consistent with other studies, with the spatial variability of atmospheric Del14CO2 attributed to air-sea 14C disequilibrium associated with carbon outgassing from 14C-depleted carbon-rich deep water upwelling at around 60 S, driving a latitudinal gradient of atmospheric Del14CO2 in the Southern Hemisphere, with longitudinal variability also observed. A stronger atmospheric Del14CO2 latitudinal gradient is observed in the 1980s/1990s relative to later 1990s/2000s. Stronger atmospheric Del14CO2 latitudinal gradients observed in 1980s/1990s suggest stronger deep water upwelling thereby greater associated outgassing of 14C-depleted CO2. These Del14CO2-based observations are consistent with modelling studies that predict changes in deep-water upwelling have controlled decadal variability in CO2 uptake, and are consistent with observation-based studies of decadal changes in rate of CO2 uptake of the Southern Ocean. The results presented in this thesis present the first observation-based confirmation that decadal changes in the strength of deep-water upwelling can explain decadal changes in the rate of CO2 uptake.


Advisor 1

Bertler, Nancy

Advisor 2

Mikaloff-Fletcher, Sara

Copyright Date


Date of Award



Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Science

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Antarctic Research Centre

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

Antarctic Research Centre

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences