Chemical Oceanography

Chemical Oceanography is fundamentally interdisciplinary. The chemistry of the ocean is closely tied to ocean circulation, climate, the plants and animals that live in the ocean, and the exchange of material with the atmosphere, cryosphere, continents, and mantle. This diversity of influences on the chemistry of the ocean is represented by the research interests of the Chemical Oceanography faculty at the University of Washington, listed below, with links to the individual research groups.

Meet Our Faculty

Areas of Research

Carbon Cycle

Many of our faculty and students are researching how carbon is distributed and exchanged between the oceans, atmosphere, biosphere and geosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels influence Earth’s surface temperature and are an integral part of the carbon cycle. All living things and the fossil fuels they can evolve into are comprised of carbon. The ocean contains a large reservoir of carbon many times the size of the atmospheric reservoir that can substantially alter atmospheric CO2 levels. Faculty members involved with carbon cycle research include:
Al Devol, Steve Emerson, Dick Feely (NOAA-PMEL), Anitra Ingalls, Rick Keil, Jim Murray, Paul Quay, Jeff Richey, Chris Sabine (NOAA-PMEL), Julian Sachs


Several of our faculty and students research Earth’s climate and how it has varied in the recent and more distant past. Understanding the natural variability of the climate system is essential for determining when the current climate is outside its normal range. Since thermometers, rain gauges, weather balloons, oceanographic research vessels, and satellites have only been used extensively for less than a century the only way to reconstruct climate is from ocean and lake sediment cores, ice cores, tree rings, coral and the like. Most of these techniques involve chemical analyses of one type or another, a specialty of our department. Accurate reconstructions of the “pre-instrumental” climate are necessary in order to test the complex mathematical models used to predict future climate changes. Faculty members involved in paleoclimate research include:

Anitra Ingalls, Julian Sachs.

Geochemistry of Rivers and Estuaries

The ultimate source of the chemical constituents of the sea is primarily from rivers that deliver their dissolved and particulate input through estuaries. This is the location of the most intimate contact of the ocean with humans, and we have our own unique example of Puget Sound. Faculty that work on these systems are:

Al Devol, Anitra Ingalls, Rick Keil, Jeff Richey, Julian Sachs, Mark Warner


The source of most of the chemical changes in the sea is the flux of biologically produced organic matter from the euphotic zone. Gas exchange at the air-water interface is the sink for anthropogenically produced greenhouse gases. Faculty who study chemical and isotope tracers of these biological processes are:

Steve Emerson, Chris Sabine (NOAA-PMEL), Paul Quay, Mark Warner

Sediment Geochemistry

Chemical reactions in the ocean change dramatically and are facilitated by a unique set of microbes when the oxygen concentration is exhausted. The most widespread example of this is in ocean sediments which become the most important sink for nitrate after organic matter diagenesis depletes oxygen. Other examples are the oxygen minimum zones of the ocean and anoxic basins like the Black Sea. Faculty that study anaerobic chemical reactions and processes that control organic matter preservation are:

Al Devol, Steve Emerson, Anitra Ingalls, Rick Keil, Jim Murray, Julian Sachs

Hydrothermal Systems & Chemistry

Chemical reactions at mid-ocean ridge spreading centers that bisect all ocean basins involve unique reactions that greatly influence ocean chemical mass balance and provide a host for unique biological systems. Faculty that study these processes are:

Marv Lilley, Joe Resing (NOAA-PMEL)

A more detailed description of the research interests of our faculty is contained in the Power Point presentation you can download here: Chemical Oceanography Power Point Presentation.