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Oceans to acid

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One sign of growing concern over the issue comes from Britain, where the Royal Society - Britain's equivalent to the US National Academy of Sciences - late last month commissioned a six-month study to see what current research has to say about the ocean's carbon uptake and its effect on marine life. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is slated to become president of the Group of Eight industrial countries next year, is said to have climate change high on his list of priorities for the next G-8 meeting. The Royal Academy study is expected to play a key role in those discussions.

The Royal Academy's announcement came a month after research results appeared in the US journal Science that solved the mystery of the missing CO2 and considered its biochemical consequences.

A research team, led by marine chemist Christopher Sabine, took on the herculean task of compiling a global picture of the oceans' CO2 uptake, based on measurements from some 70,000 samples of seawater. The samples were collected worldwide during two large oceanographic projects in the late 1980s and 1990s aimed at measuring ocean circulation and the movement of carbon through the system.

"We've known for years that the oceans take up a significant amount of carbon dioxide," says Dr. Sabine, with the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "But we haven't been able to quantify it based on direct measurements until now."

From 1800 to 1994, the team estimates, the oceans soaked up 48 percent of the carbon emitted from human activities, such as burning wood, coal, oil, or gas. Thus, the oceans are currently storing about a third of their long-term potential, the team concluded.

The real surprise, however, came from the impact the results had on the overall picture of the globe's carbon cycle,

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