Close this search box.


What Is Ocean Acidification?

And how will it affect New Jersey?

Ocean acidification is often described as climate change’s “equally evil twin.” Like climate change, the principal cause of acidification in the open ocean is an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), with potentially harmful ecological and economic consequences.

Carbon dioxide gas dissolves rapidly in seawater, setting off a chemical reaction that lowers pH and makes seawater more acidic. The ocean has absorbed roughly 30% of global CO2 emissions since the beginning of the industrial era, lowering average ocean pH by 0.1 units – equal to a 30% increase in acidity. If CO2 emissions continue at current rates, ocean pH levels are expected to fall another 0.3 to 0.4 pH units by the end of the century, representing an additional 120% drop and creating an ocean that is more acidic than at any time in the past 20 million years.

Acidification makes it more difficult for marine creatures such as oysters, clams, scallops, lobsters, and crabs to create shells. It can disrupt reproduction, growth, and metabolism in both shell-forming and non-shell-forming species and can leave marine organisms more vulnerable to disease, predation, and climate-related impacts such as warming waters.

A NOAA video illustrates the effects of elevated CO2 on a tiny pteropod or “sea butterfly.”

Ocean acidification has the potential to disrupt New Jersey’s marine ecosystem, particularly fisheries, and the communities that depend on fishing and aquaculture for their livelihoods. While New Jersey isn’t seeing significant impacts yet, ocean acidification is regarded as an emerging threat due in part to the importance of fishing and aquaculture to the state’s economy.

New Jersey’s commercial fishing industry is the fifth largest in the United States and provides more than 50,000 jobs. The fishing and aquaculture industries contribute more than $1 billion annually to the state’s economy. The most commercially important shellfish species in New Jersey include the Atlantic sea scallop, ocean quahog, Atlantic surfclam, blue crab, and eastern oyster. In the United States, southern New Jersey counties rank second in economic dependence on shelled mollusks.

While much is known about ocean acidification generally, the impacts of acidification on many species commonly found in New Jersey waters and on the marine ecosystem as a whole remain largely uninvestigated.

Numerous studies have looked at the effects of acidification on eastern oysters, but the literature is sparse, if not altogether absent, on other commercially important species. Only one laboratory study focuses on acidification and sea scallops, New Jersey’s most valuable shellfish harvest, and only two acidification studies have been conducted on ocean quahog, blue crabs, summer flounder, and longfin squid. Indeed, of the 35 managed species in the mid-Atlantic region, 69% (24 species) have not yet been investigated for acidification impacts, including Atlantic surfclams, Atlantic mackerel, Atlantic menhaden, black sea bass, bluefish, and horseshoe crabs.

Among the critical questions that need more study are the impacts of acidification at various life stages; the capacity of species to adapt or acclimatize to acidification; the thresholds at which species may be lost to acidification; and how acidification affects the food web, populations dynamics, and community structure.

New Jersey oysters packed for shipping (left) and served at a Cape May restaurant (right). Commercial fishing and aquaculture contribute more than $1 billion annually to the state’s economy.

Ocean acidification doesn’t happen in isolation. It occurs against the backdrop of other climate-related impacts such as warming temperatures and algal blooms that amplify acidification and add to the stress on marine life, especially in coastal waters. An increase in heavy downpours, for example, flushes naturally acidic freshwater into the ocean as well as pollutants such as fertilizer and wastewater that stimulate excess algae growth. The algae eventually die and are consumed by bacteria, which deplete oxygen in the water, leading to a dangerous condition known as hypoxia. The process also releases carbon dioxide, which, in turn, increases acidification. Periodic upwellings of deeper, colder, more acidic water are an additional source of acidification near the coast.

More monitoring and research are needed to better understand ocean acidification and its impacts on the marine ecosystem and economy. And because the ocean doesn’t stop at New Jersey’s borders, coordinating with scientists, policy makers, and other stakeholders throughout the mid-Atlantic region and beyond is essential for crafting an effective response.

Like climate change, the key to mitigating ocean acidification over the long term is to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions by transitioning to renewable energy, practicing climate-smart agriculture, using sustainable building materials, eating a climate-friendly diet, and much else. Reducing the influx of land-based pollutants into the ocean, which has the additional benefit of reducing harmful algal blooms and hypoxia, will help reduce acidification in the near-shore environment, as will protecting and restoring “carbon sinks” such as salt marshes. In the meanwhile, much work remains to expand awareness of ocean acidification among policy makers, researchers, the fishing industry, and NGOs, and explore ways to help ocean-dependent communities adapt to changing conditions.

Click to download

This work was made possible with financial assistance from the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, as amended, as administered by the Office of Coastal Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Program through the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, Coastal Management Program.

Ocean Acidification credits

Meet the Climate Corps

Angel Alguera, Rutgers Climate CorpsAngel Alguera
I am a first-year Atmospheric Science master’s degree student in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and my work focuses on meteorology and applications of climate change resiliency. My professional interests include severe weather forecasting and community preparedness regarding weather-related disasters. I work with Dr. James Shope at the NJ Climate Change Resource Center to produce applied research and reports relevant to New Jersey stakeholders. I currently assist with climate change data analysis, large dataset management, and report writing.

Daniel GilkesonDaniel Gilkeson
I’m a second-year master’s student in the City and Regional Planning Program with a concentration in environmental planning. As a planner, I hope to build more resilient communities in the face of increased risk due to climate change. With the Climate Change Resource Center, I am working on a project to aid the state in an update of its floodplain buyout program, known as Blue Acres, to be more proactive and comprehensive. Prior to this position, I interned in the Community and Economic Development Office at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Association. I’m also an AmeriCorps alum, having completed a year of service working on affordable housing in Nashville, Tennessee.

Benjamin GoldbergBenjamin Goldberg
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in climate adaptation and resiliency planning, with experience in sustainable food systems. I joined the Climate Corps last summer to help develop a GIS-based food waste recovery tool, and currently support community resilience through flood vulnerability analysis. I hold a B.A. from Middlebury College and a Certificate in Ecological Horticulture from UC Santa Cruz.

Surya Jacob, Rutgers Climate CorpsSurya Jacob
I am a graduate student in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School concentrating in community development, focused on housing, land and finance, as well as pursuing the Real Estate Development/Redevelopment Certification. Prior to Bloustein, I worked as an architect and interior designer in India and Canada and am pivoting towards a career in urban planning to engage in extensive projects at the macro level. My interests include affordable and mixed income housing, urban redevelopment, and housing finance, and I am deeply passionate about climate resilience in community planning. Being part of Climate Corps is a foundational step towards helping to solve equity issues in vulnerable communities along the coastal region.

Vineesh Das Kodakkandathil, RutgersVineesh Das Kodakkandathil
I am an urban planner with five years of professional experience in community-led ecotourism development and land use and environment management planning in ecologically sensitive areas. I have worked on and conducted extensive environmental sensitivity analyses, flood and landslide vulnerability assessments, and human impact assessments with the help of GIS tools. I’m currently pursuing my master’s in City and Regional Planning at Bloustein School with a concentration in Transport Planning and GIS.

Douglas LeungDouglas Leung
I am working with the Climate Change Resource Center to identify vulnerable communities and places affected by climate-induced flooding in coastal New Jersey municipalities. I am a Master of City and Regional Planning candidate at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. As a planner, I want to develop strategies and solve problems affecting our cities and communities that enable more equitable outcomes in housing and transportation. I am also a recent Army veteran, having served as a company commander of recruiting in the northern suburbs of Chicago and as a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division. For fun, I enjoy weightlifting, running, reading fiction, and board games.

Nihar MhatreNihar Mhatre
I am a master’s candidate in city and regional planning at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, focusing on urban design and land use planning. Before being accepted at Rutgers, I worked as an architect at JD Studio and had my own architectural practice, Vastu Insights. My research interests revolve around designing and developing climate change adaptation and resilience strategies to promote equity in urban landscapes. Having the opportunity to work on real-world projects through Climate Corps will be an essential step in the development of my understanding of addressing climate change issues in vulnerable regions.

Justin MorrisJustin Morris
Justin is a master’s student at Rutgers University studying discovery informatics and data sciences. He is working under Professor Mark Rodgers to develop an optimization model that will act as a decision support tool for university financial investments with the end goal of eliminating Rutgers’ scope 2 emissions. He is excited to apply his background in data analytics and mathematical programming to help the university fight climate change.

Josephine O'GradyJosephine O’Grady
I am a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy program. Through the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience (C2R2) certification, I am focusing a significant portion of my graduate coursework on topics including coastal geomorphology, environmental justice, and hazard mitigation planning. Before beginning my studies at the Bloustein School, I received my bachelor’s degree in public health from Kean University, where I first became interested in how coastal dynamics shape lived experiences. I previously served as an intern at the New Jersey State Policy Lab and currently work for the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

Jessica Parineet Jessica Parineet
I am a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Bloustein School with a strong interest in climate change policy and related topics. In my previous work, I gained experience in a number of dimensions of climate change issues through carbon capture storage research, urban heat island research, and community level engagement as I am currently on the Student Advisory Board for the Rutgers Office of Climate Action. I am excited to expand on my interests in environmental justice and local level resilience planning through my involvement in the Climate Corps.

Dillon Patel Dillan Patel
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in Environmental Planning and International Development. I have previously worked as an economist performing cost-benefit analysis and conducting monitoring and evaluation for renewable energy in developing countries. I have also spent a summer in western Massachusetts mapping stormwater infrastructure and working with planners to identify suitable places for green stormwater infrastructure.

Moira Sweeder, Rutgers Climate CorpsMoira Sweeder
I am a graduate student enrolled in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School. My concentration is environmental planning with a focus on coastal resilience. Before pursuing my master’s degree at Rutgers, I studied sustainability at Stockton University. During this time, I interned for the PSEG Institute of Sustainability Studies, the Jacques Cousteau National Estuary Research Reserve, and NJ Audubon. I am thrilled to now be a part of the Climate Corps, researching coastal resilience as a part of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

Thanks. Your submission was sent successfully.