Ocean Acidification and Carbon Capture

A 2020 article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains how the agency recently came out with a 10-year roadmap to deal with ocean acidification as well as acidification in the Great Lakes. Non-ocean bodies of water are often overlooked in the hydrosphere acidification issue but can have just as detrimental impacts. Hydrosphere acidification increases the potential loss of thousands of jobs and a $1 billion U.S. shellfish industry (NOAA 2020a). Ocean acidification is understood at a high-level, but research plans were required to be able to answer deeper questions to better understand this complex system.

The hydrosphere acidification system’s primary Source is the atmospheric carbon dioxide that comes from the global energy system’s combustion of fossil fuels. The gaseous atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed in the water to produce the Stock carbonic acid. This acid then breaks down into separate ions, where decreasing pH leads to a decline in carbonate ions Stock that are critical to shell-building ocean life that act as a Sink in using carbonate to produce their calcium carbonate shells and skeletons. Weaker and deformed shells subsequently lead to economic losses to the billion-dollar shellfish industry in addition to ocean and lake habitat degradation.

Figure 1. Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide to Deformed Shell Pathway

Source: (NOAA 2020b).


The Source in the ocean acidification system can be expanded to better understand the drivers of change in an expanded system view (Meadows and Wright 2008, 97). When expanding that element in the system, it can be seen that the atmospheric carbon driving the acidification is a Sink in the energy creation system. Human’s demand for affordable and reliable energy has created a dependence on fossil fuel sources that create flow from fossil fuel stocks that generate more stocks of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Treating water is much more difficult and costly then it is to simply stopping the source of pollution (McKinney, et al. 2019, 425). As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, water acidifies, and temperature increases, a Feedback Loop generates the need for more energy to help manage those issues. With the use of fossil fuels projected to continue for decades to come, it will be important to utilize all possible Process options of reducing those emissions, like with carbon capture and sequestration technologies, to avoid being stuck in this feedback loop  (EIA 2021).

System Perspective

The issue of carbon emissions that lead to ocean acidification showcase multiple system traps. However, the primary issue is the “tragedy of the commons” where the atmosphere, ocean, and life within each are impacted from the selfish behavior that degrades the health of those global resources due to long delayed feedback from the use of those resources (Meadows and Wright 2008, 117-119). A large example of this is when the United States did not want to be the one to limit their emissions if China did not have to limit their emissions. The United States never ratified the Paris agreement based on this argument, and emissions continued to rise subsequently. There are three ways to avoid this system trap called the “tragedy of the commons”; educate and exhort, privatization, and regulation (Meadows and Wright 2008, 119).


With the atmosphere and oceans unable to be privatized, the only two suggested solutions by Meadows is to educate and exhort, or to regulate the commons. While both options are likely needed, which one do you feel would generate the most impacts to minimizing atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions that are leading to ocean acidification?

Author: Logan Callen


EIA. 2021. “EIA’s AEO2021 Shows U.S. Energy-related CO2 Emissions Rising After the Mid-2030s.” Energy Information Agency. February 21. Accessed July 7, 2021.

McKinney, Michael L., Robert M. Schoch, Logan Yonavjak, and Grant A. Mincy. 2019. Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions. 6th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. 2008. Thinking in Systems: a Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub.

NOAA. 2020a. “NOAA Unveils 10-year Roadmap for Tackling Ocean, Great Lakes Acidification.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. July 29. Accessed July 13, 2021.

—. 2020b. “Ocean, Coastal, and Great Lakes Acidification Great Lakes Acidification Research Plan: 2020-2029.” NOAA Ocean Acidification Program. Accessed July 13, 2021.

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