Bringing Wetlands to Market: the Power of Coastal Blue Carbon in a Changing Climate

Making Waves: Episode 137

Money does not grow on trees, but it could be growing in our coastal salt marshes and sea grass beds. A team of researchers is working at Waquoit Bay Research Reserve on Cape Cod in Massachusetts on the "Bringing Wetlands to Market" project to study the connections between coastal wetlands, carbon dioxide uptake and storage, and the global carbon trading economy. Wetlands have the potential to serve as valuable assets in carbon trading markets – but only if we protect them, and don't dig up the treasure!

A graduate student at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve documents information gathered from a chamber set up to measure carbon dioxide and methane exchange within the marsh. In a project known as Bringing Wetlands to Market, the Waquoit Bay Reserve leads cutting-edge, collaborative research that examines the relationship between salt marshes, climate change, and nitrogen pollution and has developed tools to leverage the "blue carbon" stored in wetlands.

Listen to the Episode:

Transcript

HOST:  Welcome to Making Waves, a podcast from the NOAA National Ocean Service.  I'm Megan Forbes, and in this podcast we're going to focus on an issue of great importance to our environment – climate change… or rather, efforts to adapt to climate change.  One community in Massachusetts, the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, has developed an innovative set of tools designed around the concept of blue carbon, or the carbon captured by the world's ocean and coastal ecosystems. You've probably heard that human activities give off something known as carbon dioxide, which contains atmospheric carbon. You might also know that these gases are changing the world's climate, and not in a good way. What you may not know is that our ocean and coasts provide a natural way of reducing the impact of greenhouse gases on our atmosphere, through taking in of this carbon. Coastal wetlands act as something called a carbon sink, sequestering carbon at a much faster rate than forests and continuing to do so for millions of years.

The bigger picture of blue carbon is one of coastal habitat conservation. When wetlands are damaged or destroyed, they shift from being carbon "sinks" to being carbon sources that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  Protecting and restoring these habitats is a good way to reduce climate change.

Blue carbon has received increased global attention, recently. Unfortunately, wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate, and decisions to develop, protect, or restore them are often made in the context of limited public resources. Trading wetland carbon offsets on carbon markets is an exciting new approach to creating financial incentives for restoration and conservation. In a project known as Bringing Wetlands to Market, the Waquoit Bay Reserve leads cutting-edge, collaborative research that examines the relationship between salt marshes, climate change, and nitrogen pollution and has developed tools to leverage the "blue carbon" stored in wetlands.

I spoke with Tonna-Marie Surgeon Rogers, the Coastal Training Program Coordinator at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve…she had much to say on the ecosystem benefits of a project such as this one:

TONNA-MARIE SURGEON-ROGERS: What we're trying to do with this project is really expand the implementation of blue carbon, and by that we mean use this new understanding, that has been recently recognized, that coastal wetland ecosystems like salt marshes and sea grasses are storing a vast amount of carbon that we refer to as blue carbon, and that, in turn, is actually providing a climate benefit.  If we are able (by this project) to produce a  model that has been refined enough, and has been expanded enough, and shown to be robust to enable coastal managers to predict greenhouse gas emissions and carbon storage in coastal wetlands in New England and along the east coast, we would have produced a tool that can be used to help managers understand how wetlands are performing in this area – and can be used as a tool to help reduce transaction costs for looking at how these systems can be considered in the carbon market.  That is one aspect of success.  The second area of success is being able to engage targeted end users [in] the steps you would go through for actually checking the feasibility of a carbon market project.  The third is really expanding the awareness and understanding of how wetlands play a role in the carbon cycle and the benefit that they're providing on a number of different fronts – but in the area of carbon storage, in particular.

HOST:  I also had the chance to talk with Dr. Dwight Trueblood, the National Estuarine Research Reserves System Science Collaborative Program Manager for the NOAA Office for Coastal Management. He explained why collaboration is such an important element in this type of research project.

DWIGHT TRUEBLOOD: Collaboration is a very important aspect of these projects because solving problems that involve coastal resources involves not just understanding how natural resources will be impacted but also how people living and working in coastal communities will also be impacted by the choices we make.  We now understand that we need to engage the people who will use the science so that they trust what is being done and feel that they are part of the overall decision-making process…to not only engage the scientists, but also public officials, people from non-governmental organizations, and sometimes even the general public.  Doing this well is challenging and it also takes resources- but in the end I think the extra work is worth it because it makes it easier to implement the best solutions once we get to the end of the project.  I would say that NOAA is fortunate in that we already have a system in place to help do some of this work, which is the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.  They are ideally suited to do this because they are nested within their local communities; they have staff in place that can do the research and help facilitate that, as well as people that can bridge the gap between the scientists and the people that want to use the information coming out of the projects.   

HOST: Tonna-Marie agrees...

TONNA-MARIE SURGEON-ROGERS:  When NOAA funded this project, they really had a vision for what they dubbed as "collaborative research", and by that they meant engaging potential end users of the science into the whole research process.  So we have ended up with a project that is not just a strong science project, but it's a project that has really dovetailed well with understanding stakeholder interests and needs at the same time it's helping to build awareness about blue carbon and about its potential application on a number of different wavelengths.

HOST: One method of slowing climate change impacts is to incorporate coastal wetlands into the carbon market, through the buying and selling of carbon offsets.  The Bringing Wetlands to Market project uses a proven method for determining the monetary value of blue carbon in marshes.

TONNA-MARIE SURGEON-ROGERS:  Under the first phase of the Bringing Wetlands to Market project we did a tremendous amount of science and field work, and we used that science and fed it into the development of a very data-driven model - to be able to see if we could produce a user-friendly model that would take all of that intensive data and boil it down to a few parameters that you could use to be able to predict greenhouse gas emissions and storage in the wetland.  In this new phase, we're expanding the model…we're doing what is called "generalizing" it…by using more data that is collected from a wider range of sites, and then we're partnering with others to get data from outside the sites [where] we're actually doing fieldwork, again, to expand that.  So what we’re trying to do is engage with targeted end-users, in particular those that we’re working on with the Herring River Restoration Project in Massachusetts, as a primary example of how you would actually do a blue carbon market project – we’re using that particular project to test that, to look at the feasibility of a carbon market project. We have a guidebook for coastal managers to be able to understand the different things that are talked about in the methodology and how they would think about it in their own context….to be able to understand and learn more about blue carbon concepts…to be able to understand what is in the methodology…so it explains everything very well.  What that opens up is being able to use this methodology to then generate carbon credits for a wetlands restoration project.

HOST: Both Tonna-Marie and Dwight have visited the research site and gave me a birds-eye view of the action there:

TONNA-MARIE SURGEON-ROGERS: So when we go to the site we set up instrumentation that the Reserve has to monitor a number of different parameters over time – so we're looking at indicators that can tell us sea level rise impacts…we have all the different data being collected: temperature, salinity, wind-speed, water depth, all of that.  We also have put in this extensive boardwalk because our team realized early on that with all of the intensive field data-gathering that was going to happen, we were going to be trudging through the marsh a lot. We did not want to have a negative impact on the marsh, and a boardwalk would essentially allow the science team members to bring out all their instrumentation.  On a day where there is a lot of greenhouse gas measurements being done, a lot of sampling being done, you'll see quite a number of people – everybody out there collecting data at the same time.

HOST: Dwight was also impressed.

DWIGHT TRUEBLOOD: I did a site visit when I was out at Waquoit Bay once, and it was interesting in that all the scientists and students can walk out over the marsh without impacting it – and it looks very high-tech when you go out there because they have all this instrumentation on students sitting around.  If it's a rainy day they've got umbrellas up over everything, so it's a very high-tech experience, if you will.  It's not like just walking out and taking core samples, it's a lot more involved and a lot more people engaged in doing that.  They have their study sites identified with plot markers; they put their equipment down and essentially spend an entire tidal cycle collecting data and information.

HOST: Beyond tools for wetland restoration and carbon credits, this project has an educational aspect that brings this effort full circle for future generations. 

TONNA-MARIE SURGEON-ROGERS:  The STEM Curriculum is developed for high school teachers and it looks at the process of science and engineering.  It really looks at blue carbon science, explains different things, and gives exercises that teachers can use in their classroom.  It also has this very neat element where it includes an adopt-a-wetland activity, so students can become stewards of a wetland – and this stewardship element is really important because that's a component of what we're trying to drive home in terms of improving public understanding about all the benefits we get from coastal wetlands areas.

HOST: Dwight and I discussed how this project builds upon efforts that began in 2012, creating a strong foundation for future blue carbon research and raising awareness of this valuable ecosystem service that wetlands provide.

DWIGHT TRUEBLOOD: As part of the first project they developed a curriculum at the Waquoit Bay Reserve to teach teachers about blue carbon and carbon sequestration.  There was an interest from the South Slough Reserve in Oregon for that same information and curriculum, so they made a connection directly between those two Reserves to essentially share that curriculum.  So the curriculum was actually developed in Waquoit and transferred to South Slough and modified to address the questions and issues that they wanted to be aware of.

HOST:  The Bringing Wetlands to Market project is a groundbreaking effort for climate change adaptation. The project has generated information and tools that can inform wetland restoration and protection efforts, as well as policy decisions about greenhouse gas offsets. I asked the team to share with me their feelings on some of the most important information they've learned while being part of the project.

DWIGHT TRUEBLOOD: Coastal wetlands provide habitat for many plants and animals that we don't find anywhere else in the country.   So projects like this one help us understand the benefits that coastal wetlands provide beyond what we traditionally think marshes provide.  In this case, essentially sequestering the carbon and the more traditional protection from erosion, coastal storms and flooding.  This project is showing that, in fact, wetlands essentially store carbon in the sediments and that's a benefit that we hadn't really considered in the past.

TONNA-MARIE SURGEON-ROGERS:  My biggest takeaway is how incredible these systems are at storing carbon, and at the same time, how much there is a need to restore them.  Anything that has a restoration benefit could be considered with the use of this methodology – and I think it's not just applicable in the U.S., it's also a globally applicable methodology – so that is really exciting.  For the first time, a tool is there and it opens up this whole avenue for market applications of blue carbon.

HOST:  We hope you've enjoyed this episode of Making Waves. Thanks to Tonna-Marie Surgeon-Rogers and Dr. Dwight Trueblood for joining me. For more information on climate adaptation and projects like this, check out our website at oceanservice.noaa.gov. Thanks for listening!