Coastal wetlands excel at storing carbon

New analysis supports mangrove forests, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows as effective climate buffers
University of Maryland Science Daily 1 Feb 17;

While coastal wetlands serve as effective 'blue carbon' storage reservoirs for carbon dioxide, other marine ecosystems do not store carbon for long periods of time, a new analysis suggests.

In the global effort to mitigate carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, all options are on the table -- including help from nature. Recent research suggests that healthy, intact coastal wetland ecosystems such as mangrove forests, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows are particularly good at drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it for hundreds to thousands of years.

Policymakers are interested to know whether other marine systems -- such as coral reefs, kelp forests, phytoplankton and fish -- can mitigate climate effects. A new analysis co-authored by a University of Maryland scientist suggests that, while coastal wetlands serve as effective "blue carbon" storage reservoirs for carbon dioxide, other marine ecosystems do not store carbon for long periods of time.

The research paper, published February 1, 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, also notes that coastal wetlands can help protect coastal communities from storm surges and erosion. Coastal wetland areas are easier for governments to manage compared with ecosystems that reside in international waters, further adding to the strategic value of coastal wetlands in the fight against climate change.

"We compared many different coastal ecosystems and have made a clear case for including coastal wetlands in discussions about greenhouse gas mitigation," said Ariana Sutton-Grier, an assistant research scientist at UMD's Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center and a co-lead author of the research paper. "Coastal wetlands store a lot of carbon in their soils and are important long-term natural carbon sinks, while kelp, corals and marine fauna are not."

The research paper integrates previous data on a variety of coastal and marine ecosystems to determine which systems are best suited to mitigate climate effects. To make this assessment, Sutton-Grier and her colleagues evaluated how effectively each ecosystem captures carbon dioxide -- for example, by plants using it to build their branches and leaves -- and how long the carbon is stored, either in plant tissues or in soils.

Coastal wetlands outperformed other marine systems in just about every measure. For example, the researchers estimated that mangrove forests alone capture and store as much as 34 million metric tons of carbon annually, which is roughly equivalent to the carbon emitted by 26 million passenger cars in a year. Estimates for tidal marshes and seagrass meadows vary, because these ecosystems are not as well mapped globally, but the total for each could exceed 80 million metric tons per year.

All told, coastal wetlands may capture and store more than 200 metric tons of carbon per year globally. Importantly, these ecosystems store 50-90 percent of this carbon in soils, where it can stay for thousands of years if left undisturbed.

"When we destroy coastal wetlands, for coastal development or aquaculture, we turn these impressive natural carbon sinks into additional, significant human-caused greenhouse gas sources," said Sutton-Grier, who is also an ecosystem science adviser for the National Ocean Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The researchers' goal is to help inform resource managers and policymakers where to focus their limited resources to have the greatest impact on climate mitigation. The new analysis acknowledges that other ecosystems, such as coral reefs and kelp forests, provide valuable storm and erosion protection, key fish habitat and recreation opportunities, and thus deserve protection. But their capacity to store carbon over the long term is limited.

"A common question I get from coastal managers and other stakeholders is whether oyster reefs, coral and kelp are effective 'blue carbon' habitats," said Stefanie Simpson, a co-author of the paper and manager of the Blue Carbon program at the nonprofit organization Restore America's Estuaries. "This paper highlights the role all of these ecosystems have in the carbon cycle, while calling out our coastal habitats -- marsh, seagrass and mangroves -- for their role as significant and long-term carbon stores."

Researchers have often looked to terrestrial forests as carbon sinks as well. But most forests do not store substantial amounts of carbon in their soils. As such, the researchers believe that coastal "blue carbon" habitats may stand alone as the most efficient biological reservoirs of stored carbon on Earth.

"The concept of 'blue carbon' has focused scientists and stakeholders on the tremendous potential of managing marine ecosystems for climate mitigation," said Patrick Megonigal, associate director for research at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, who reviewed an early draft of the manuscript but was not directly involved in the work. "This analysis takes a big step forward by explaining why coastal wetland ecosystems are particularly attractive for carbon-based management."

Journal Reference:

Jennifer Howard, Ariana Sutton-Grier, Dorothée Herr, Joan Kleypas, Emily Landis, Elizabeth Mcleod, Emily Pidgeon, Stefanie Simpson. Clarifying the role of coastal and marine systems in climate mitigation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2017; 15 (1): 42 DOI: 10.1002/fee.1451

Wetlands Can Help Fight Climate Change
But if these ecosystems are not protected, they could release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere
Brittany Patterson, E&E News Scientific American 3 Feb 17;

Coastal wetlands are among the best marine ecosystems to fight climate change, new research confirms.

A study published this week in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment compared the carbon sequestration potential of a handful of marine ecosystems and found that mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows have the greatest impact on climate change. Helping less are coral reefs and kelp beds.

“We're trying to emphasize that coastal ecosystems could be an important component of reducing emissions through conservation and restoration of these systems,” said Jennifer Howard, marine climate change director at Conservation International and co-lead author of the new study. “At a national scale, these three ecosystems could make a huge difference.”

Coastal wetlands take in carbon quickly and hold it for a long time, the literature review found. If they are not protected, the ecosystems could release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, potentially jeopardizing the ability of some nations to meet their international climate commitments in the Paris Agreement, Howard said.

Indonesia, for example, is home to more than one-fifth of the world's mangroves. In order to meet its emissions goals, establishing national policies to protect them is “absolutely crucial,” Howard said.

One reason coastal wetlands are such a good tool to cut emissions is because they're fairly easy to manage. Simply put, most governments know where their mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows are located.

The research also found that other marine systems, like phytoplankton, are long-term carbon sinks. But the authors said it would be incredibly challenging to create a policy that manages billions of microscopic photosynthesizing creatures found all over the ocean.

Compared with those, it's much easier to oversee coastal wetlands.

Howard pointed to a national commitment by the Dominican Republic in 2015 to bolster and restore its carbon-rich mangroves. The pledge comes in the form of a “nationally appropriate mitigation action,” a tool under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which provides tools and capacity-building to the country to help save its coastal wetlands and reduce emissions.

The study was compiled largely as a tool for scientists who communicate the benefits of coastal ecosystems to climate mitigation and adaptation to high-level policymakers, Howard said.

Yesterday, scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research released a report outlining the importance that local communities have in mangrove use planning.

Typically, federal government agencies manage mangrove forests in countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Tanzania. But mangroves do better when local communities maintain the rights to the wetlands and help draft conservation plans, the research shows.

It's a growing model. In Ecuador, local communities have land and management rights to almost 40,000 hectares of mangroves and have documented increased seafood yields and other benefits.

Still, gender equity remains a missing element in mangrove conservation and management, the study found. It notes that women do much of the labor in maintaining mangroves but often have no ownership.

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