Ocean Acidification: The Threat of Absorbed Carbon in Our Oceans

Ocean Acidification –

The Threat of Absorbed Carbon in Our Oceans

by Sarina Weiss


Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, excess amounts of carbon have been released into the atmosphere. This atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gasses have caused global warming and the greenhouse effect, as well as a lesser know effect called ocean acidification. As the levels of CO2 rise in out atmosphere, so do the levels of CO2 in our oceans, which absorb a quarter of the atmospheric CO2 released annually.[1] If we do not implement strong political and scientific action to stop this process soon, the increasing CO2 in the oceans could destroy the world’s largest ecosystem forever.


A chemical reaction between absorbed CO2, water (H2O) and a carbonate ion (CO32-, a natural ion found in ocean water) produces two bicarbonate ions (2HCO3) and increases the acidity of the ocean.[2] This chemical reaction is called ocean acidification.


The negative effects of ocean acidification are detrimental to our ocean’s ecosystems. Many organisms vital to the ocean’s ecosystem function, like shellfish and coral, build their shells and bodies with calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Carbonate ions more readily bond with excess hydrogen from the ocean acidification reaction to form bicarbonate rather than calcium carbonate. This deprives these shelled organisms from an essential chemical they need in which to live. Without carbonate readily available, these organisms will fail to build their structures, eventually disappearing along with the creatures that feed on them or use them for shelter.[3]


In order to protect the ocean and their valuable ecosystems, it is important to try to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification through further scientific studies on the effects of CO2 as well as policy development. Currently, there are federal, state, and local policies in place to protect coastal waters from excess CO2 emissions and runoff containing harmful carbon, but these policies do not directly attempt to relieve ocean acidification.[4] For example, the Clean Water Act oversees impaired waters and enacts plans to limit pollution in order to maintain water quality. There are no regulations though on the impairment of waters due to increased CO2 emissions causing drops in pH.[5] Due to low public awareness surrounding the issue of ocean acidification, and the fact that there are many sources adding to the problem, there are still few scientific and political efforts to mitigate and prevent ocean acidification.[6]


We currently do not have specific programs to prevent acidification, but in addition to the Clean Water Act’s protection of coastal waters by limiting runoff of specific harmful pollutants, there are three other strategies in place that may have a positive effect on added CO2 in the ocean. First, local and state governments control erosion, which can increase the negative effects of acidification by adding fertilizer and other harmful pollutants into the watershed.3 Although this does not directly affect CO2 levels, it can prompt further damage, and management can have a positive effect on pH. Second, by zoning and permitting in coastal areas, local governments can better control runoff for the most harmful pollutants adding to acidification. Third, enforcing limits on CO2 emission standards that are already in place could have an immediate local effect on ocean acidity.3 Although none of these policies alone directly mitigate the effects of ocean acidification, they can help control the damage and the environmental issues that exacerbate the problem.


In thinking of future policies on ocean acidification, it is most pertinent to reduce emissions of CO2 at the source, because carbon dioxide in the ocean is directly absorbed from the atmosphere. To develop more effective emission standards, we must fully understand the levels of CO2 in the ocean at which their ecosystems are sustainable.[7] When we regulate CO2 emissions we must not only consider the greenhouse effect and the harmful impacts on the changing climate, but the conditions of our ocean’s indispensable ecosystems as well.





Emitted, trapped, heated, and absorbed– for this is the cycle of carbon that is no longer in equilibrium. From agrarianism to deforestation to industrialization, anthropogenic emissions and practices have thrown the carbon balance out of the norm, resulting in rising temperatures and dangerous levels of ocean acidification. With this issue of ocean acidification, policy is often advocated for, but I question how feasible implementation is when it comes to preventative measures. Your points of erosion control, coastal area zoning, and emission standards are definitely effective measures, but when carbon dioxide release is growing and growing, is ocean acidification a problem that can only be solved by solving the issue of drastic air pollution? Another alternative solution might be that of carbon sinks and algae donor sites. Carbon sinks can often serve to sequester the excess of carbon entering the oceans, but with the assistance of macro algae communities, the number of carbon sinks can grow as macro algae serves as a carbon donor. Additionally, as carbon dioxide levels rise and coral bleaching and pH balance pose further issues, is the only solution the reduction of carbon, or are there alternative methods to combat coral bleaching? Despite possible alternative solutions, in the long, I thoroughly agree with your point that we must not just focus on the atmospheric effects of emissions, but also turn our attention away from the sky and shift our sight to the waters that lie below.



Hey Sarina! I think you picked a great topic for your blog—ocean acidification is such a large issue, and yet no one seems to be talking about. It’s effects are far reaching, and do not only disturb the aquatic ecosystem but so too our terrestrial ecosystem. Another branch of this topic that I find very interesting involves the oceans’ ability to absorb carbon. With a warming atmosphere, the oceans are absorbing less and less carbon dioxide (warmer water can hold less carbon dioxide than cooler water), thus quickening the pace of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere in a deleterious positive feedback cycle. Oceans are a great resource for us to use, as they can act as natural carbon sinks. But more and more evidence is pointing to the fact that the rate of ocean CO2 absorption is slowing. I completely agree that we need to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification through policy development, but the challenge there is that policy to protect ocean acidification is tantamount to climate change mitigation policy. Our oceans are so affected by our atmosphere, that it would be impossible to protect the ocean without decreasing carbon emissions—at least, with our current technology. Perhaps with COP21 in Paris we will begin to see serious climate change action). In the interim, I think more education on and research into ocean acidification is critical. We know so little about the oceans, but we do know that we are affecting them in grave ways.



It was really interesting to read your blog post, as mine was on a very similar topic. To hear your perspective on a topic that I am so interested in was really enlightening. The main point of yours that struck a cord with me is how you mentioned that we must focus on “reducing” carbon “at the source.” While there are various policies that I think would be helpful in adapting to climate change, the truth is that adaptive strategies only act as a Band-Aid. If we continue to simply “adapt” we are never going to actually address the problem; instead, we will merely dance around it. In the short term, it is definitely smart to put in to action adaptive strategies such as carbon sequestration, as this policy successfully removes carbon from the atmosphere and therefore prevents it from entering the ocean and furthering the acidification process. However, it is better in the long term to cut off carbon dioxide emissions at the source.

You also touched on the importance of increasing public awareness. Climate change is a very relevant issue on today’s political agenda. However, the public is less aware of this specific facet of climate change. Ocean acidification and its effects on coral reefs and other organisms that build their shells and bodies with calcium carbonate are relatively unknown to people, and increasing public awareness on this issue is one of the first steps we can take in mitigating this problem.

In my paper, I focused on federal policies that address climate change. I appreciated that you took a more diverse perspective that focused on federal and state policies. For example, you mentioned that local and state governments control erosion as well as institute zoning and permitting policies, which all help on the local level. It was interesting to see what ocean acidification policy looked like from a more local perspective, as I took a broader view.



This is an interesting topic that I’ve only heard a little about. Other harmful effects of carbon on climate changed are discussed much more often. This left me wondering: What are the main effects that we have felt of ocean acidification thus far? How bad is this problem projecting to be? And what are the worst effects we could see as a result. I think in general we just assume all carbon released into the air stays in the air. I’d be interested to see studies which test how permanent these changes are: At what rate do these compounds break down and as a result how fast would this problem fix itself if CO2 release cut in half for example?

Of course issues also bring to light the bigger questions of cutting carbon emissions. How drastic to our cuts have to be in order to make an actual difference on the issue? Even though we may increase efficiency of carbon-based energy use by x% in some industry, if the population keeps growing at its current rate, demand will only continue to rise. Therefore, carbon emissions may stay level or even continue to rise as well. I think more drastic changes in our energy policy or energy market will need to occur before we start to see improvement on these important carbon issues. Hopefully research continues to push the limits of sustainable energies.

Good article though. It brings to light a less-discussed issue and challenges/limitations facing current policy for the issue.



I think a great part about this blog posts is that the statements about what is happening with ocean acidification are backed up with actual chemistry and science. I had always heard that increased carbon pollution was hurting the oceans and the creatures in the oceans, but I thought it was mainly because of the pH levels and increased temperatures. I had not heard about the problem increased acidity in the oceans cause with shellfishes’ carbonate production before your blog, and I whenever I had previously heard about dying species in the oceans, I would mainly think about fish–not really giving any thought to the disappearance of shellfish and what that could mean to the rest of the ecosystem that depends on shellfish as food.

You said that the Clean Water Act oversees impaired waters and enacts plans to limit pollution in order to maintain water quality, but there are no regulations on the impairments of waters specifically due to increased CO2 emissions causing drops in pH levels. What kind of regulations would you like to see added to the Clean Water Act in order to regulate CO2 in the oceans? Also, you said that local and state governments control erosion—I would be curious to learn more on how they actually do this and how effective erosion control is on reducing carbon pollution in the oceans.

The end of the blog talks about reducing CO2 emissions at the source. In Rachel Strand’s blog about Coral Reefs, she cites cap and trade as a potential solution. Most solutions mentioned in this post come from governmental regulation instead of market based solutions. After reading this blog and Rachel’s blog, it seems like a combination of local and state regulation on impairments of water due to CO2 emissions paired with cap and trade solutions would be a good way to attempt and stop carbon emissions at the source while attempting to reverse damage that has already been done.

The ocean acts as the largest carbon sink in the world. Scientists are increasingly opting to term carbon stored in our oceans and its associated coastal habitats “Blue Carbon.” One of the major problems our world faces now is the positive feedback loop of our ocean sink — the more carbon it sequesters, the more difficulty it has in the future to sequester the same amount at similar rates due to oversaturation. This makes it much more difficult to adapt, because an entire ecosystem could face collapse. There is a sort of “point of no return” that we might face in our lifetime that no one wants to step up against.

Your proposal for policy solutions gave a strong focus to the possible actions local and state governments could undertake. In particular, I enjoyed your proposal for coastal management and zoning. It is estimated that 70% of blue carbon is stored in 0.5% of the total space of the ocean — namely in mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses along the coast. In the United States, we find the highest concentration of those ecosystems in the Gulf States (esp. Florida) and California. Their protection is vital for carbon sequestration. With every burning or slashing of these areas, we diminish the ability of the overall “ocean sink” to absorb carbon in organic plants and increase the likelihood of it being absorbed in its liquid waves. This then increases ocean acidification.

Ocean Acidification is also an issue that requires significant global cooperation to address. A handful of nations bear the blame as being the most significant sources of carbon. The livelihoods of some communities and small island nations and even industrial fisheries are entirely reliant upon the continued efforts of these nations in reducing their emissions. This is where your third recommendation holds a lot of power, because it is the federal government that will take the heat at UN and other international meetings when blamed for the US’ failure to act quickly enough. Enforcing the laws we already have in place would not overcomplicate the regulatory atmosphere since it is not adding anything new, simply remaining steadfast to what these laws were actually supposed to achieve. These regulations also have power in precedent, by the fact that they have already been passed. There is not threat of them being thrown out on the floor of Congress.


Hi Sarina. So, I think this blog is great but I might just be biased because I’m super interested in marine ecosystems and marine policy. After I read your blog, I had a little ‘survey’ where I asked a couple of my friends how they felt about ocean acidification. All but one of my friends had no idea what I was talking about. I think this goes to show how uninformed the public is. I also think there may be people who just don’t believe its actually happening. A lot of people are choose not to believe in climate change even though there is concrete scientific evidence.

Just like a lot of environmental issues, politics and science will be intertwined. No political action can be implemented unless there is scientific background. It’s hard to directly link the increase in atmospheric CO2 to a lower pH in the entire ocean. In thinking of future policies you state that it is important to reduce CO2 emissions, which I agree with but how will we accomplish this? In a hypothetical situation, we curb all CO2 emissions right now. But I still wonder how we would reverse the damage already done to the oceans?

On another note, there’s an ethical component to a lot of environmental issuesa It’s sad but A lot of people simply don’t care about the marine animals that are affected by ocean acidification. It’s hard to care about things that we can’t see.

[1] US EPA, OW, OWOW, AWPD. 2016. “Implementing Clean Water Act Section 303(d): Impaired Waters and Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs).” Accessed March 7. http://www.epa.gov/tmdl.

[2] US EPA, OW, OWOW, AWPD. 2016.

[3] NCAquariumFortFisher. 2013. Ocean Acidification. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01oIF-t05Es.

[4] Kelly, R. P., M. M. Foley, W. S. Fisher, R. A. Feely, B. S. Halpern, G. G. Waldbusser, and M R Caldwell. 2011. “Mitigating Local Causes of Ocean Acidification with Existing Laws.” Science 332

[5] US EPA, OW, OWOW, AWPD. 2016. “Implementing Clean Water Act Section 303(d): Impaired Waters and Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs).” Accessed March 7. http://www.epa.gov/tmdl.

[6] NCAquarium Fort Fisher. 2013.

[7] Harrould-Kolieb, E., and D. Herr. 2011. “Climate Change and Ocean Acidification: Synergies and Opportunities within the UNFCCC,” 17.