NOAA Advances “Blue Carbon” Approach to Conserving Wetlands

The Takeaway: Happenings include research reserve tools and workshops and the addition of coastal ecosystem carbon to the U.S. greenhouse gas inventory.

In the race to lessen the damage of climate change, the “blue carbon” stored in the nation’s coastal ecosystems is a powerful ally. It can be traded on global carbon financial markets, which balance projects that feature emissions with contributions that take carbon out of the atmosphere. NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserves and Science Collaborative joined with partners to bring blue-carbon workshops, tools, and other aids to coastal communities. These aids are even more useful now that blue carbon is included in the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions inventory through the efforts of NOAA’s land cover change program.

The addition of blue carbon to the national inventory means that conservation and restoration partners can provide authoritative numbers on the carbon-storing capacity of their coastal projects—and potentially make a profit, too, through market trading. Nine research reserves are assisting these partners and communities:

The following results came from research reserve efforts:

  • In Massachusetts, the Waquoit Bay Research Reserve and partners developed “Bringing Wetlands to Market,” which included the first-ever U.S. tool and guide on marketing the blue carbon stored in coastal wetlands. It also included a protocol to make salt marsh restoration eligible for carbon markets and a user-friendly model enabling managers to predict how tidal wetland greenhouse-gas fluxes, and potential carbon storage, will change under different conditions. This project has built widespread support for blue carbon research and application, expanded education outreach, and catalyzed projects at other reserves.
  • The Waquoit Bay Research Reserve, working with partners, also found that restoring tidal flow to restricted or degraded marshes reduces the greenhouse gas methane. Moreover, the team found that restoring tidal flow from the Herring River to 1,100 acres of degraded wetlands is feasible and, over four decades, could prevent estimated carbon dioxide emissions of up to 300,000 tons from entering the atmosphere. Such a project could generate long-term revenue from the sale of carbon credits, helping to offset the costs of project maintenance and monitoring.
  • In Texas, the “Bringing Wetlands to Market” tool and guide were adapted for use in workshops by the Mission-Aransas Research Reserve. These workshops reached 318 participants in three cities and five research reserves in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico, and Texas. A video filmed at the reserve also gives viewers “the skinny” on blue carbon.
  • In Florida, the Rookery Bay Research Reserve and Restore America’s Estuaries are studying the feasibility of using a planned mangrove restoration to market blue-carbon credits. U.S. investors need to know how much carbon is stored in wetlands to confidently trade on the carbon market.
  • In Oregon, the South Slough Research Reserve’s “Bringing Wetlands to Market” workshops led to the formation of the Pacific Northwest Coastal Blue Carbon Working Group. Oregon’s South Slough and Washington’s Padilla Bay research reserves, working with this group, have published data on the carbon stored in Pacific Northwest tidal wetlands. Partners are also filling data gaps on carbon storage and greenhouse gas emissions. Later they aim to calculate the carbon-market value of different restoration projects.
  • In at least six states, a blue carbon curriculum featured through Teachers on the Estuary workshops has reached more than 100 teachers who have educated more than 2,000 students.
  • In Alaska, the Kachemak Bay Reserve is partnering with local stakeholders to leverage blue carbon markets as a way to value Kenai Peninsula wetlands. The partners also have received $35,000 in funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct carbon-related research on peatland depths.
  • Many research reserves have partnered on projects with Restore America’s Estuaries, which leads a 1,200-member national blue carbon network and publishes a newsletter sharing the latest events and webinars.

Recently, two participants in NOAA’s Margaret A. Davidson Fellowship have begun carbon-related research projects. A fellow at Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Research Reserve is evaluating the potential of natural and restored tidal marshes to store carbon. A fellow at Washington State’s Padilla Bay Research Reserve is studying how connected watersheds and other environmental conditions affect carbon storage in seagrass meadows.

Blue carbon financial-market projects were made possible by seven Science Collaborative grants and efforts by the Apalachicola Bay, Grand Bay, Jobos Bay, Mission-Aransas, Kachemak Bay, Padilla Bay, Rookery Bay, South Slough, Waquoit Bay, and Weeks Bay Research Reserves. NOAA’s Science Collaborative is managed in partnership with the University of Michigan. (Original story 2016/updated 2018 and 2020)

More Information: Advancing the Use of Blue Carbon for Coastal Systems

Partners: California Coastal Conservancy, Cape Cod National Seashore, Florida International University, Friends of Herring River, Geomatics Research LLC, Graham Sustainability Institute, Gulf of Mexico Coastal Training Program Initiative, Institute for Applied Ecology, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences’ Marine Biological Laboratory, National Estuarine Research Reserve Association, NOAA Digital Coast and Office of Habitat Restoration, Oregon State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Portland State University, Puget Sound Partnership, Restore America’s Estuaries, Silverstrum Climate Associates LLC, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, TerraCarbon, The Climate Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Program, U.S. Geological Survey’s Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center, University of Rhode Island, Verified Carbon Standard, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Weeks Bay Foundation, Waquoit Bay Reserve Foundation, and the Apalachicola Bay, Chesapeake Bay-Maryland, Grand Bay, Kachemak Bay, Mission-Aransas, Padilla Bay, Rookery Bay, South Slough, Waquoit Bay, and Weeks Bay Research Reserves