Human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, have caused a substantial increase
in the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) in the atmosphere. This increase in atmospheric CO2
(from about 280 to more than 380 parts per million (ppm) over the last 250 years) is causing measurable global warming.
Potential adverse impacts include sea-level rise; increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, floods, droughts, and
tropical storms; changes in the amount, timing, and distribution of rain, snow, and runoff; and disturbance of coastal
marine and other ecosystems.
Rising atmospheric CO2 is also increasing the absorption of CO2 by seawater, causing the ocean to
become more acidic, with potentially disruptive effects on marine plankton and coral reefs. Technically and economically
feasible strategies are needed to mitigate the consequences of increased atmospheric CO2. The United States
needs scientific information to develop ways to reduce human-caused CO2 emissions and to remove
CO2 from the atmosphere.
What Is Carbon Sequestration?
The term "carbon sequestration" is used to describe both natural and deliberate processes by which CO2 is
either removed from the atmosphere or diverted from emission sources and stored in the ocean, terrestrial environments
(vegetation, soils, and sediments), and geologic formations. Before human-caused CO2 emissions began, the
natural processes that make up the global "carbon cycle" (Figure 1) maintained a near balance between the uptake of
CO2 and its release back to the atmosphere. However, existing CO2 uptake mechanisms (sometimes
called CO2 or carbon "sinks") are insufficient to offset the accelerating pace of emissions related to human activities.
How Big is the Problem?
Annual carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels in the United States are about 1.6 gigatons (billion metric tons),
whereas annual uptake amounts are only about 0.5 gigatons, resulting in a net release of about 1.1 gigatons per year (Figure 2).
Controlling atmospheric CO2 will require deliberate mitigation with an approach that combines reducing emissions and increasing storage.
Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and elsewhere are working to assess both the potential capacities and the potential limitations of the various forms of carbon sequestration and to evaluate their geologic, hydrologic, and ecological consequences. The USGS is providing information needed by decision makers and resource managers to maximize carbon storage while minimizing undesirable impacts on humans and their physical and biological environment.
Oceanic Carbon Sequestration
The world's oceans are the primary long-term sink for human-caused CO2 emissions,
currently accounting for a global net uptake of about 2 gigatons of carbon annually (Figure 1). This uptake is not a result of
deliberate sequestration, but occurs naturally through chemical reactions between seawater and CO2 in the atmosphere.
While absorbing atmospheric CO2, these reactions cause the oceans to become more acidic. Many marine organisms and
ecosystems depend on the formation of carbonate skeletons and sediments that are vulnerable to dissolution in acidic waters.
Laboratory and field measurements indicate that CO2-induced acidification may eventually cause the rate of
dissolution of carbonate to exceed its rate of formation in these ecosystems. The impacts of ocean acidification and
deliberate ocean fertilization on coastal and marine food webs and other resources are poorly understood. Scientists are
studying the effects of oceanic carbon sequestration on these important environments.
Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration
Terrestrial sequestration (sometimes termed "biological sequestration") is typically accomplished through forest and soil
conservation practices that enhance the storage of carbon (such as restoring and establishing new forests, wetlands, and
grasslands) or reduce CO2 emissions (such as reducing agricultural tillage and suppressing wildfires).
United States, these practices are implemented to meet a variety of land-management objectives. Although the net terrestrial
uptake fluxes shown in Figure 2 offset about 30 percent of U.S. fossil-fuel CO2 emissions, only a small fraction
of this uptake results from activities undertaken specifically to sequester carbon. The largest net uptake is due primarily
to ongoing natural regrowth of forests that were harvested during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Existing terrestrial carbon storage is susceptible to disturbances such as fire, disease, and changes in climate and land
use. Boreal forests and northern peatlands, which store nearly half the total terrestrial carbon in North America, are
already experiencing substantial warming, resulting in large-scale thawing of permafrost and dramatic changes in aquatic
and forest ecosystems. USGS scientists have estimated that at least 10 gigatons of soil carbon in Alaska is stored in organic
soils that are extremely vulnerable to fire and decomposition under warming conditions.
The capacity of terrestrial ecosystems to sequester additional carbon is uncertain. An upper estimate of potential terrestrial
sequestration in the U.S. might be the amount of carbon that would be accumulated if U.S. forests and soils were restored to their
historic levels before they were depleted by logging and cultivation. These amounts (about 32 and 7 gigatons for forests and soils,
respectively) are probably not attainable by deliberate sequestration because restoration on this scale would displace a large
percentage of U.S. agriculture and disrupt many other present-day activities.
Decisions about terrestrial carbon sequestration
require careful consideration of priorities and tradeoffs among multiple resources. For example, converting farmlands to forests
or wetlands may increase carbon sequestration, enhance wildlife habitat and water quality, and increase flood storage and
recreational potential - but the loss of farmlands will decrease crop production. Converting existing conservation lands to
intensive cultivation, while perhaps producing valuable crops (for example, for biofuels), may diminish wildlife habitat, reduce
water quality and supply, and increase CO2 emissions. Scientists are working to determine the effects of climate and
land-use change on potential carbon sequestration and ecosystem benefits, and to provide information about these effects for use
in resource planning.
Geologic Carbon Sequestration
Geologic sequestration begins with capturing CO2 from the exhaust of fossilfuel power plants and other major sources.
The captured CO2 is piped 1 to 4 kilometers below the land surface and injected into porous rock formations.
Compared to the rates of terrestrial carbon uptake shown in figures 1 and 2, geologic sequestration is currently used to store only
small amounts of carbon per year. Much larger rates of sequestration are envisioned to take advantage of the potential permanence and
capacity of geologic storage.
The permanence of geologic sequestration depends on the effectiveness of several CO2 trapping mechanisms. After CO2
is injected underground, it will rise buoyantly until it is trapped beneath an impermeable barrier, or seal. In principle, this physical
trapping mechanism, which is identical to the natural geologic trapping of oil and gas, can retain CO2 for thousands to millions
Some of the injected CO2 will eventually dissolve in ground water, and some may be trapped in the form of carbonate
minerals formed by chemical reactions with the surrounding rock. All of these processes are susceptible to change over time following
CO2 injection. Scientists are studying the permanence of these trapping mechanisms and developing methods to determine the
potential for geologically sequestered CO2 to leak back to the atmosphere.
The capacity for geologic carbon sequestration is constrained by the volume and distribution of potential storage sites. According to
the U.S. Department of Energy, the total storage capacity of physical traps associated with depleted oil and gas reservoirs in the
United States is limited to about 38 gigatons of carbon, and is geographically distributed in locations that are distant from most
U.S. fossil-fuel power plants.
The term "carbon sequestration" is used to describe both natural and
deliberate processes by which CO2 is either removed from the atmosphere or diverted from emission sources and stored
in the ocean, terrestrial environments (vegetation, soils, and sediments), and geologic formations.
The potential U.S. storage capacity of deep porous rock formations that contain saline ground water
is much larger (estimated by the U.S. Department of Energy to be about 900 to 3,400 gigatons of carbon) and more widely distributed,
but less is known about the effectiveness of trapping mechanisms at these sites. Unmineable coal beds have also been proposed for
potential CO2 storage, but more information is needed about the storage characteristics and impacts of CO2
injection in these formations. Scientists are developing methods to refine estimates of the national capacity for geologic carbon sequestration.
To fully assess the potential for geologic carbon sequestration, economic costs and environmental risks must be taken into account.
Infrastructure costs will depend on the locations of suitable storage sites. Environmental risks may include seismic disturbances,
deformation of the land surface, contamination of potable water supplies, and adverse effects on ecosystems and human health.
Scientists are pioneering the use of new geophysical and geochemical methods that can be used to anticipate the potential costs
and environmental effects of geologic carbon sequestration.
Why Action Is Needed Now?
Cumulative historical CO2 emissions from fossil fuels in the United States are equivalent to more than the total amount
of carbon stored in U.S. forests. If current trends continue, cumulative U.S. emissions are projected to double by 2050 and increase
by a factor of three to four by 2100. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report of 2007,
sequestration and reduction of emissions over the next two to three decades will potentially have a substantial impact on longterm
opportunities to stabilize levels of atmospheric CO2 and mitigate impacts of climate change.
Can Sequestration Control Atmospheric CO2?
Computer models of future CO2 emissions and controls on atmospheric CO2 have been developed and summarized
by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). These models indicate that projected annual global emissions during the next
century would need to be reduced by more than 75 percent in order to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at about 550 ppm. This
concentration would be about twice the level of CO2 in the pre-industrial atmosphere and about 45 percent higher than
the atmospheric CO2 concentration in 2007. According to the CCSP, stabilizing atmospheric CO2 would "require
a transformation of the global energy system, including reductions in the demand for energy.and changes in the mix of energy
technology and fuels."
The CCSP models have been used to evaluate scenarios for aggressive implementation of geologic carbon sequestration. As shown
in Figure 3, the estimated amount of geologic sequestration in the U.S. over the next century is projected in one model to
be substantially smaller than the cumulative emission reductions anticipated from changes by all other methods. In this model,
the needed amount of geologic sequestration would exceed U.S. capacity in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, implying the need to
implement carbon storage in the Nation's relatively unknown deep formations that contain saline water. In other models, predicted
geologic sequestration needs are smaller as a result of different assumptions about global and national economic and technological
The CCSP model results have a large amount of uncertainty. The results shown in Figure 3 do not take into account many of
the uncertainties in costs and environmental risks of geologic carbon sequestration. Additional uncertainties prevent
comparison of future oceanic and deliberate terrestrial sequestration. Future disturbances of vegetation and soils may
add to future CO2 emissions and increase the amount of mitigation required to stabilize atmospheric CO2.
For example, if a substantial portion of the carbon stored in Alaskan organic soils were converted to atmospheric CO2
as a result of climate change, the resulting emissions could offset or even exceed the likely magnitude of any deliberate
U.S. terrestrial sequestration measures.
The CCSP models illustrate the widely held view that sequestration is necessary but insufficient to control atmospheric
CO2. Stabilizing atmospheric CO2 is likely to require substantial changes in energy sources and use
as well as carbon management. Many of these changes will likely have significant, long-lasting impacts on land, water, and
|Figure 1: The global carbon cycle. Carbon naturally moves, or cycles, between the atmosphere
and vegetation, soils, and the oceans over time scales ranging from years to millennia and longer.
Human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests, have increased the
transfer of carbon as CO2 to the atmosphere. Although some of this anthropogenic CO2 is removed
from the atmosphere by the natural uptake processes ("sinks") of the carbon cycle, much of it
remains in the atmosphere and causes rising CO2 concentrations. The goal of deliberate carbon
sequestration is to decrease the net flux of CO2 to the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in the
oceans, vegetation, soils, and porous rock formations. Fluxes shown are approximate for the period
2000-05, as documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. USGS image.
|Figure 2. Estimated annual net CO2 emissions and uptake in the United States in 2003, according
to the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. U.S. fossil-fuel CO2 emissions accounted for more than 20
percent of the global total in 2003. Net uptake fluxes (photosynthesis minus oxidation) are shown for forest and
non-forest areas. The largest net U.S. CO2 uptake was associated with regrowing forests and harvesting
wood products. Non-forest net carbon uptake-including accumulation in shrubs, agricultural soils, wetlands, rivers,
and reservoirs-was smaller and more uncertain. USGS image.
|Oil and Gas Reservoirs
||. Well-characterized volume
. Known seal
. Potential fuel recovery to offset cost
|• Smallest capacity (~25 gigatons carbon)
• Limited in number
• Requires infrastructure to transport CO2
|Formations Containing Saline Water
||• Large capacity (~250 to 900 gigatons of carbon)
• Wide distribution
|• Poorly characterized
• Greatest geologic uncertainty
• Unknown seal effectiveness
|Unmineable Coal Beds
||• Adjacent to many large power plants (CO2 source)
• Potential fuel (methane) recovery to offset cost
|• Poorly characterized
• Difficult to define "unmineable" coal
• Potential coal resources may be rendered unusable
|Environmental issues: Potential for mobilization of ground-water contaminants; leakage of CO2 and CO2-saturated saline water; induced seismicity
Regulatory issues: Determination of rules affecting injection wells; multiple regulatory jurisdictions (State, Federal, local); post-injection ownership and liability
|Figure 3. Estimated U.S. atmospheric CO2 (as carbon) mitigation needs and potential sequestration
capacities: (A) Cumulative U.S. CO2 emissions reduction and sequestration needed by 2100 to help stabilize
atmospheric CO2 at 550 parts per million (model results from U.S. Climate Change Science Program); (B)
Estimated U.S. CO2 sequestration capacity. (The estimate of ~3,400 gigatons carbon for potential geologic
storage is equivalent to ~12,600 gigatons CO2, as estimated by the U.S. Department of Energy. Terrestrial
sequestration is not expected to approach the estimate shown. Uncertainties in estimated terrestrial and
geologic sequestration are substantial.) USGS image.
How the USGS is helping
The USGS is committed to acquiring and communicating the scientific information needed to control atmospheric CO2
and minimize its harmful effects on natural resources. For many years, USGS scientists have contributed to the growing body
of knowledge concerning climate change, the carbon cycle, and carbon sequestration. Building on its tradition of providing
reliable, impartial scientific information to support the management of natural resources, the USGS provides information to
support carbon management by:
The USGS is providing information needed to assess the need for CO2 mitigation, evaluate the potential for carbon
sequestration to meet that need, and anticipate the potential environmental consequences of implementing the full portfolio
of strategies for controlling atmospheric CO2.
- applying the expertise of many
technical disciplines to understand
how to limit CO2 emissions and
maximize carbon storage;
- integrating information about the
multiple resources that will be
affected by carbon management
- communicating scientific information
across the many jurisdictions and
organizations responsible for and
affected by carbon management.
|Climate Change in the News
Find it on Geology.com
More from Geology.com
|Cave of the Hands: A cave in Argentina with wall paintings that date back to about 7000 BC.
|Organic Gems are gems formed from or by plants or animals. They might also be fossils.