Articles | Volume 11, issue 1
Research article
07 Jan 2014
Research article |  | 07 Jan 2014

Observed small spatial scale and seasonal variability of the CO2 system in the Southern Ocean

L. Resplandy, J. Boutin, and L. Merlivat

Abstract. The considerable uncertainties in the carbon budget of the Southern Ocean are largely attributed to unresolved variability, in particular at a seasonal timescale and small spatial scale (~ 100 km). In this study, the variability of surface pCO2 and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) at seasonal and small spatial scales is examined using a data set of surface drifters including ~ 80 000 measurements at high spatiotemporal resolution. On spatial scales of 100 km, we find gradients ranging from 5 to 50 μatm for pCO2 and 2 to 30 μmol kg−1 for DIC, with highest values in energetic and frontal regions. This result is supported by a second estimate obtained with sea surface temperature (SST) satellite images and local DIC–SST relationships derived from drifter observations. We find that dynamical processes drive the variability of DIC at small spatial scale in most regions of the Southern Ocean and the cascade of large-scale gradients down to small spatial scales, leading to gradients up to 15 μmol kg−1 over 100 km. Although the role of biological activity is more localized, it enhances the variability up to 30 μmol kg−1 over 100 km. The seasonal cycle of surface DIC is reconstructed following Mahadevan et al. (2011), using an annual climatology of DIC and a monthly climatology of mixed layer depth. This method is evaluated using drifter observations and proves to be a reasonable first-order estimate of the seasonality in the Southern Ocean that could be used to validate model simulations. We find that small spatial-scale structures are a non-negligible source of variability for DIC, with amplitudes of about a third of the variations associated with the seasonality and up to 10 times the magnitude of large-scale gradients. The amplitude of small-scale variability reported here should be kept in mind when inferring temporal changes (seasonality, interannual variability, decadal trends) of the carbon budget from low-resolution observations and models.

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