Kim Kastens
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published Mar 7, 2010

I recently blogged about the confusion spawned by the term "negative feedback loop," which has a meaning in popular culture that in some cases can mean exactly the opposite of its meaning in Earth Systems. Continuing to notice how language influences thought, I now offer in awestruck admiration a counterexample of a technical term where the popular meaning and the scientific meaning pull together in glorious harmony.

That term would be "carbon sequestration," defined as the processes by which carbon dioxide is either removed from the atmosphere or diverted from emission sources and stored in the ocean, vegetation, soils, or geological formations.

Carbon sequestration in geological formationsCarbon sequestration in geological formations <image info>

In chemistry, "sequester" means to "form a chelate or other stable molecule (with an ion, etc.) so that it is no longer available for reaction." So in a technical sense, "carbon sequestration" is an accurate description of the process of reacting carbon dioxide with basalt or ultramafic rocks to remove it from the atmosphere reservoir.

In normal English, "sequester" means "isolate or hide away (someone or something.)" So to the lay ear, "carbon sequestration" carries an unspoken reassurance that the bad actor will be hidden away, out of sight and out of mind.

I think the jury is still out as to the practicality of carbon sequestration as an antidote to global climate change. But as an instance of using language to encourage the reader or listener to incline favorably towards an idea, carbon "sequestration" is a brilliant choice.

Source: According to my Lamont colleague Taro Takahashi, , the first official use of this term was in the 1999 DOE report entitled: "Carbon Sequestration Research & Development, A 1999 Report by DOE's Office of Fossil Fuel Energy and Office of Science" by Martha Krebs (Director of Office of Science) and R. S. Kripowicz (Deputy Director, DOE). The term was in informal use earlier, but I haven't been able to find who first used it.

Comment? Start the discussion about "Sequestration"