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Estuaries play an uncertain but potentially important role in the global carbon cycle via CO2 outgassing. The uncertainty mainly stems from the paucity of studies that document the full spatial and temporal variability of estuarine surface water partial pressure of carbon dioxide ( pCO2). Here, we explore the potential of utilizing the abundance of pH data from historical water quality monitoring programs to fill the data void via a case study of the mainstem Chesapeake Bay (eastern United States). We calculate pCO2 and the air-water CO2 flux at monthly resolution from 1998 to 2018 from tidal fresh to polyhaline waters, paying special attention to the error estimation. The biggest error is due to the pH measurement error, and errors due to the gas transfer velocity, temporal sampling, the alkalinity mixing model, and the organic alkalinity estimation are 72%, 27%, 15%, and 5%, respectively, of the error due to pH. Seasonal, interannual, and spatial variability in the air-water flux and surface pCO2 is high, and a correlation analysis with oxygen reveals that this variability is driven largely by biological processes. Averaged over 1998–2018, the mainstem bay is a weak net source of CO2 to the atmosphere of 1.2 (1.1, 1.4) mol m−2 yr−1 (best estimate and 95% confidence interval). Our findings suggest that the abundance of historical pH measurements in estuaries around the globe should be mined in order to constrain the large spatial and temporal variability of the CO2 exchange between estuaries and the atmosphere.


This work was originally published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, available at

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non‐commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.



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