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The Suess effect:13Carbon-14Carbon interrelations

Environment International
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/0160-4120(79)90005-9
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Geography
  • Mathematics


Abstract The Suess Effect is a term which has come to signify the decrease in 14C in atmospheric CO 2 owing to admixture of CO 2 produced by the combustion of fossil fuels. This term is here extended, as a concept, to the shifts in isotopic ratio of both 13C and 14C in any reservoir of the carbon cycle owing to anthropogenic activities. To explain this generalized Suess Effect a four reservoir global model of the natural carbon cycle is developed in which isotopic fractionation and radioactive decay are fully taken into account. The model includes the cases in which the deep ocean is treated either as a single undifferentiated box model reservoir or is vertically differentiated with eddy diffusion governing the transport of carbon. Also, the governing equations are expressed with sufficient generality to apply simultaneously to both rare isotopes. In so far as possible, the model is expressed without approximation of the isotopic processes even though this leads to non-linear differential equations to describe the rates of change of rare isotopic carbon within carbon reservoirs. Linear approximations also developed and solved using the method of Laplace transforms. The sensitivity of the predicted Suess Effects to uncertainties in the assigned values of the model parameters is investigated in detail, including estimates of some of the effects of linearizing the governing equations. The approximation of Stuiver, in which the atmospheric Suess Effect is assumed to be 0.018 times the corresponding effect for 14C, is examined in detail and shown to arise when both isotopic fractionation and radioactive decay are left out of the model. This approximation, although correct as to order of magnitude, is found to be too imprecise to be recommended in modeling studies. As found in previous work, the predicted atmospheric Suess Effect for 13C for a given airborne fraction of industrial CO 2 is of similar magnitude whether the land biosphere has been a net source or sink of carbon during recent times. On the other hand, the corresponding effect for a surface ocean water is considerably smaller than otherwise if the land biosphere has been a source of CO 2 instead of a sink. The model is thus useful in indicating the need to consider isotopes in several reservoirs simultaneously. Although the emphasis is on formulating models rather than surveying and interpreting data, observational data are summarized and compared with model predictions. The oceanic data are seen to be too meager as yet to help settle the question of biospheric response to man's activities.

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