Earth Absorbing Half Of All Carbon Dioxide Emissions

By Amir Khan on August 6, 2012 12:44 PM EDT

Oceans, forests and other places on Earth continue to absorb approximately half of all of the planet's carbon dioxide emissions, despite the increase in production, according to a new study, published in the journal Nature. While this has stopped global warming from progressing at a catastrophic pace, it cannot continue forever, researchers said.

Researchers analyzed 50 years of CO2 emission data and found that the planet's absorption ability is not yet at capacity.

"Globally, these carbon dioxide 'sinks' have roughly kept pace with emissions from human activities, continuing to draw about half of the emitted CO2 back out of the atmosphere," Pieter Tans, study coauthor and a climate researcher with NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.,  said in a statement. "However, we do not expect this to continue indefinitely."

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However, where exactly these sinks are and what role they play is still unknown.

"Since we don't know why or where this process is happening, we cannot count on it," Tans said. "We need to identify what's going on here, so that we can improve our projections of future CO2 levels and how climate change will progress in the future."

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and ozone, trap heat in the atmosphere and act as a blanket, raising temperatures and causing climate change. Global temperature increases could affect sea levels, crops and animal habitats. Scientists expect heat waves, cold snaps, hurricanes and other extreme weather events to increase as temperatures increase, according to EPA officials.

Melting sea ice plays a large role in climate change and the reduction can be disastrous for species that call the Arctic home, according to Environmental Protection Agency officials.

Melting ice contributed to sea levels that rose 5 to 6 inches over the last century, according to the EPA. A higher sea level means coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes and mangroves are at risk of being destroyed and cities along coastal areas are at an increased risk of flooding, according to the EPA.

"The uptake of carbon dioxide by the oceans and by ecosystems is expected to slow down gradually," Tans said. "As the oceans acidify, we know it becomes harder to stuff even more CO2 into the oceans. We just don't see a letup, globally, yet."

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