The Naturalist and the Seven Microatmosphere Disparity, or Carbon Dioxide Loves to Swim

Humans are naturalists by nature. We like to use our wonderful, color sensing eyes to peer through the leaves into the netherworld beyond to better understand how our world works. We’ve hacked the leaves back quite a bit now but the instinct remains with us.

Photo Credit: Richard Garcia

Photo Credit: Richard Garcia

Carbon dioxide has a nearly magical affinity for water. In the atmosphere it is known as a “well mixed” gas and this proclivity seems to hold for water as well. It doesn’t just turn into carbonic acid in a slower chemical reaction. This is only about 1% of dissolved  CO2 at equilibrium. A far greater proportion likes to just dive in and take a swim as molecular CO2. While it is swimming around it becomes available for all sorts of slower chemical reactions including uptake by plankton.


Alerted by something the naturalist pauses, the leaves are parted in a different way.

The weight of the atmosphere exerts pressure. At sea level we have defined this pressure as one atmosphere. Reasonable enough. The pressure is further divided into the pressures of the individual component gasses. These are “partial” pressures and we have all sorts of laws and equations governing the behavior of these partial pressures in the air and in water depending temperature, pressure, pH, the phase of the moon, etc. What a regular guy like Henry was doing writing the prominent law in this field I have no idea, but I suspect he may have been a naturalist. Most of the bean counting equations have names like: the Krichevsky-Kasarnovsky Equation. (wince)


The bottom line here is that because Carbon dioxide likes to swim so much it reaches equilibrium with water very quickly at whatever level the lawyers decree.

Something rustles in the debris behind the parted leaves, danger? Dinner? An omen?


Whether from scientific interest or some maritime mandate ships have been measuring the pCO2 of seawater for quite a while and they have amassed thousands of such measurements. The consistent result is that the pCO2 in the air is seven thousandths of an atmosphere higher than the water.

This is not natural…well, it is not physical since Carbon dioxide likes to swim too much to allow this to happen. Something else must be going on and a likely something is the plankton which are also fond of swimming. We believe they oxygenated the planet’s atmosphere, why should we doubt they would pump seven micro atmospheres of CO2  from the water to the air?

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3 Responses to The Naturalist and the Seven Microatmosphere Disparity, or Carbon Dioxide Loves to Swim

  1. Well, plankton indeed removes bicarbonate from the seawater and releases CO2 to form their carbonate shells which sometimes are visible from space as “algal blooms”. But that is not the cause of the difference in pCO2. If the flux was caused by plankton, or anything else releasing CO2 from the oceans, then the total amount of CO2 in the oceans (surface) would decrease, but we see an increase of about 10% of what happens in the atmosphere (not 100%, but that has to do with ocean chemistry), not a decrease.

    See what happens with DIC (dissolved inorganic carbon, that is CO2 + bicarbonate + carbonate) in the ocean surface over time as measured at Bermuda (BATS):
    and compare that to the increase in the atmosphere over the same time frame.

    • gymnosperm says:

      Thank you very much for the comment, Ferdinand. While I may not always agree, I have the utmost respect for your work and your tireless efforts to further our understanding of this complexity. You clearly have a better overall grasp of the subject than anybody I have read. Rest assured I will study your link. I think the overall discussion needs people like me prone to wild intuitive ideas, folks inclined to grind formulae as if they were the only truth, and ombudsmen like you to keep us all honest. Thanks again.

  2. Pingback: Modtran, Up and Down | geosciencebigpicture

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