October Message for the Board

Dear Wetland Supporters,

For those of us who love wetlands, there is no term that has more significance legally than “waters of the United States.” If a wetland is a water of the United States, it is protected by the Clean Water Act; if not, then it is left unprotected by federal law. The last several years have been challenging for wetland supporters because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers stripped away the protections provided by the Clean Water Act from most of the wetlands in the Carolinas. In June 2020, the agencies finalized those efforts by redefining wetlands out of waters of the United States—leaving states to decide whether or not to protect wetlands and the multitude of benefits they provide.

Wetlands in the Carolinas were particularly vulnerable under the 2020 definition. Pocosins, seeps, non-riverine swamps, hardwood flats, pine savannas, pine flats, floodplain pools, and headwater forest wetlands were vulnerable for the first time in decades because the definition required a surface water connection to a stream or river for a wetland to be considered a water of the United States. In North and South Carolina, millions of acres of wetlands likely lost federal protection under the 2020 regulation.  

 Fortunately, the 2020 definition has been revoked. In two lawsuits filed by Native American tribes in the Southwest, federal judges determined that the 2020 definition of waters of the United States was causing significant harm to wetlands and streams across the country and that the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers failed to consider the consequences of the regulation on the streams and rivers at the heart of the Clean Water Act. In Arizona, the court found that the 2020 definition had “fundamental, substantive flaws that cannot be cured” without significant changes. Next door, in New Mexico, the court found that the rule resulted in “a very real possibility of serious environmental harm.” Both courts sent the definition back to the agencies for reconsideration and vacated the regulation, leaving in place the set of regulations that preceded the 2020 definition.

The court decisions throwing out the 2020 regulation are not the final chapter. The current EPA has announced a plan to improve on the existing protections by clarifying the reach of the Clean Water Act by proposing and finalizing a new definition before the end of President Biden’s first term.  For more information, visit SELC’s page

When that process starts, it will be vital for wetland supporters to let the EPA know that wetlands matter. Carolina Wetlands Association will keep you updated on how you can make your voice heard.  

Geoff Gisler, Board of Directors

Written by: 

Geoff Gisler, Carolina Wetlands Association Board Member and lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center

Pellet Industry Threatens Wetland Forests and Climate

Written by Heather Hillaker, a Staff Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center

We are in the midst of a global climate and biodiversity crisis, and the wood pellet and biomass industries, which claim to be a solution, are threats to both. Cutting down and burning growing forests for electricity actually emits more carbon dioxide than burning coal. These actions will increase atmospheric carbon for at least the next several decades—the exact time when we need to be drastically reducing emissions— while also degrading our native forests.

Wood pellets are made mostly from living trees, which are taken to pellet mills, ground into chips, dried, and formed into pellets. Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, currently operates nine pellet mills throughout the southeast—six of which source a large amount of wood from North and South Carolina. Enviva acknowledges that 83% of its wood comes directly from forests, including forests within these two states (see map).

Wood Pellet Plants Exporting to Europe
Map of operating (yellow circle), proposed (red circle), and prospective (pink circle) wood pellet plants in the southeast. Source: Southern Environmental Law Center

Impacts to Wetlands

Over the last decade, independent, on-the-ground investigations have uncovered that Enviva’s northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia mills often relied on mature trees taken from forested wetlands. Most of this harvesting is happening within the Coastal Plain, an area that was designated in 2016 as a global biodiversity hotspot because of its high species richness and endemism. Less than a third of this area’s native vegetation remains. Harvesting for pellet mills is exacerbating existing pressures on these forests and contributing to the degradation of these valuable ecosystems, including iconic wetland forests.

The wetland forests that dot the Carolina coasts are some of North America’s most valuable ecosystems. They improve water quality, protect against floods, and provide critical wildlife habitats— especially for migratory songbirds that are appreciated by even the most casual nature-lovers. But despite these immense benefits, most of these incredible forests have already been lost, and what remains now are subjected to clearcutting to produce wood pellets that are shipped overseas to be burned for electricity.

Remaining tree stumps after a clear-cut forested wetlands.
Photograph of a clearcut wetland forest in North Carolina. Logs harvested from this site were documented entering Enviva’s pellet mill. Source: Dogwood Alliance

Impacts to Communities

The biomass and wood pellet industries aren’t just bad for forests, they hurt the climate and nearby communities too. Even though it is touted as “clean energy”, burning wood pellets from forests for electricity increases the amount of carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere for 40-100 years, worsening climate change. Moreover, the pellet mills located throughout the southeast, including Enviva’s pellet mills in North and South Carolina, release harmful pollutants and dust negatively impacting the health of those living nearby. These mills are built primarily in low-wealth communities of color, where people are already overburdened by an unfair share of pollution.

Let’s be clear, the wood pellet and biomass industries are not clean energy, and as the U.S. moves towards real climate action, we must make sure that our policies promote genuine low-carbon renewable energy sources. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes as European countries that offer billions of dollars in government subsidies to these harmful industries. Our climate, forests, and communities depend on the U.S. making the right choice by excluding forest biomass from any clean energy policy.

Call to Action

You can help by signing this petition to tell President Biden that biomass is not a part of our clean energy future.


Sign the Petition

About the Author

Heather Hillaker is a Staff Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who specializes in issues surrounding the use of forest-derived biomass for energy. Heather is actively involved in SELC’s UK, US, and state-level work on the issue, including efforts to strengthen protections for communities living near wood pellet plants.

Meet our Volunteer Coordinator

Carolina Wetlands Association is proud to introduce our newest staff member of the organization. Patty Cervenka is joining the team to serve as the Volunteer Coordinator for our new Wetland Monitoring Program. Here, she will aid in recruiting and working with volunteers for the program. Once dates are set up to visit the wetlands, Patty will help teach volunteers to collect and analyze data for further use. 

Patty grew up in Lexington, Kentucky and attended San Jose State University. She is a long-time community volunteer, serving on the Town of Cary’s Environmental Advisory Board, creating a NC Green Business Directory, and is trained as a Climate Reality Leader. Having a passion for educating about waste reduction, she is also the founder of Greenish Neighbor, a community- focused environmental organization.  

Now working with Carolina Wetlands Association, Patty is excited to embark on a program that will bring together people with diverse backgrounds to participate in hands-on scientific discovery. She hopes that the program will enhance people’s appreciation for the water quality, flood protection, and biodiversity wetlands provide. 

Patty is mostly looking forward to working with the team at Carolina Wetlands Association, RTI International, and NC State University. She states that they have put together a solid plan for collecting and analyzing data and well as creating a tremendous education opportunity for citizens.  

We’re excited about Patty joining the organization and can’t wait to explore what’s in store outside in the field with her! 

Intern Update: MarineQuest Experience

Written by Emma Nani, Carolina Wetlands Association Intern

The University of North Carolina Wilmington hosts several summer camps for various ages through their program MarineQuest. This summer, I had the opportunity to apply and attend their two-week Ocean Career Exploration and Nautical Science (OCEANS) camp. Throughout my time at OCEANS, I felt as if I got a head start into my desired degree in marine science. The other campers and I were able to experience real field work scientists would be performing routinely while meeting professors, touring their labs, and exploring marine ecosystems.

Group of students sitting on steps outside a brick building.
OCEANS 2021 students.

The core focus of OCEANS is for students to experience all aspects of marine science: biology, technology, biotechnology, geology, and chemistry– in preparation for going into a marine science career. Every activity we did related to one of these fields of marine science. Some activities we did were more scientific, like testing local and foreign sponges for antibiotic properties or measuring the accuracy of fish DNA by using gel electrophoresis. We also were able to perform several animal dissections and examine phytoplankton caught in the Intercoastal Waterway. Other activities were focused on letting us explore the local community, like experiencing oceanography by boogie boarding on Wrightsville Beach and kayaking to an island searching for mineralized shark teeth. We even took a research vessel out into the open ocean to measure characteristics of the water and performing a trawl. Regardless of the activity, I gained knowledge and interest in all areas.

 

Located near Fort Fisher, Coquina Rock is the only natural rocky outcrop in North Carolina. Here we saw sea anemones and a sea urchin hidden among the rocks.

In the mornings, we traveled via bus to an outdoor site where we either ran experiments, simulations, or viewed wildlife. We traveled to a marsh, the Cape Fear River, the open ocean, and several other places. During the afternoon’s we traveled to UNCW’s Center for Marine Science (CMS) which contains state-of-the-art equipment used by scientists, students, and startup businesses. We met professors and toured the harmful algae laboratory and watched them execute routine lab procedures. Research laboratories, a running seawater system, greenhouse, and a pier with research vehicles are just some of the highlighted features at the CMS.

While at OCEANS, I also got the chance to renourish the environment and give back to the community. As part of a volunteer program with UNCW graduate students, the other campers and I helped bag oyster shells to send to St. James Plantation. Later in the week, we traveled to Southport where we used rebar to secure the oyster bags into the bank of the sound. Additionally, we helped with planting marsh grass along the shoreline. Both efforts help prevent sediment erosion from boat traffic and wind waves. The oysters will also filter water and the marsh grass will serve as a nursery habitat for birds, crabs, and small fish. The project allowed us to connect with some of the residents of St. James and witness how the service would impact the land in their community.

Students along the shoreline.
Along the Cape Fear River, we learned how to seine and observed the organisms we found. We caught crabs, shrimp, fish and even a juvenile pufferfish.

Our instructors told us several times that they didn’t get the opportunity to do such activities until they were in their junior or senior year of college. After hearing this, the campers and I realized our great fortune to have this opportunity while still in high school.  Now that I’m back in Raleigh and getting ready to start my senior year of high school, I’m realizing just how much OCEANS was a great way to spend part of my summer learning about all the careers within marine science while meeting great people I’m sure to stay connected with in the future.

About the Author

Emma Nani

Emma is senior at Leesville Road High School (Raleigh, NC) and is part of the school newspaper and orchestra. Her college goal is to study Marine Biology or Environmental Science. 

September Message from the Board

Dear Wetland Supporters,

In July, the National Mitigation and Ecosystem Banking Conference was held in Raleigh, NC.  This conference brings together numerous companies and individuals interested in ecosystem services and allows a platform to share ideas and explore opportunities.  The various attendees ranged from Departments of Transportation, federal and state regulatory and resource agencies, attorneys, contractors, consultants, practitioners, and capital providers. 

A lot of interest has been generated in the last few years with ongoing concerns around climate change, nature-based solutions, and resiliency.  A lot of money is being spent to pursue larger and more complex projects as carbon sequestration needs and water quality/quantity issues continue to rise.  We only need to look at the recent algal blooms on the Chowan and Pamlico River (NC), flooding and water quality issues in northern Pitt County (NC) and flooding issues in Bucksport area of Horry County (SC) as examples of the issues communities across the Carolinas are battling. 

Most of these issues developed over time as we continue to increase the amount of impervious surface, clear and drained wetlands, and build in floodplains. Solutions will require a holistic and multiple project approach that will take time and money to plan and implement.  Restored and natural wetlands are a vital part of holistic, watershed-based solutions by helping to improve water quality and attenuate flood waters. 

As demonstrated at the national mitigation conference, the science of wetlands continues to evolve.  We are continually improving how wetland restoration projects are implemented to ensure the development of functioning ecosystems and to better track the restoration progress. 

In the last thirty years of driving toward the Carolina coast, I have witnessed shifts in wetland systems due to beaver activity and saltwater intrusion.  These changes to wetland hydrology whether water quantity or water chemistry have changed these ecosystems.  Learning to implement holistic projects will help enhance the environment and protect communities with nature-based solutions.  As this evolution happens, a whole industry continues to grow around mitigation and ecosystem services and the push for alternative ways to lessen the impact of climate change and build resilient system to withstand the future.

Go explore a wetland!

Norton Webster, Treasurer

Carolina Wetlands Association

August Message from the Board

Greetings Wetland Supporters:

Summer is well upon us and so is work dealing with wetlands.  One such event was the National Mitigation and Ecosystem Banking Conference that was held in Raleigh, NC in July.  Mitigation and ecosystem banking is very important to maintain and increase the quality and quantity of wetlands across the United States.

First, impacts to wetlands due to development must be permitted by the state and federal regulatory agencies with the goal to avoid and minimize wetland impacts. When impacts can’t be avoided, the impacted wetland areas must be replaced or mitigated in size and function preferably in the same watershed.  Mitigation normally takes the form of restoration or creation. 

  • Creating a wetland means putting a wetland where one had not previously existed, and this is the most complex way to mitigate wetland impact.
  • Restoration means taking a damaged or degraded wetland and turning it back to a high functioning, high quality. Restoration can take on many forms such as improving or restoring hydrology (such as plugging ditches on the coast), planting native wetland vegetation, and connecting wetlands to other wetlands such as a salt marsh to the ocean.

So, what is ecosystem banking?  First ecosystems are more than wetlands and streams so what else may be mitigated?  There are some localities in the US where there are local ordinances that require impacts to entire ecosystems must also be mitigated.  There is such an ordinance in Hilton Head Island, SC. 

Banking refers to the process where wetlands, streams and other ecosystems are restored, and a bank of mitigation credit are established.   Restoration companies then these sell mitigation credits to the developer who want to impact a wetland, stream or other ecosystem.  This process of generating credits before the impact occur is an efficient way to mitigate impacts.

You will be hearing more about wetland restoration in the future due to some of the projects we are seeking funding and, we have recently formed a partnership with the SC Mitigation Association.  We will be exploring ways where we can benefit each other. 

Most of the sponsor of the Carolina Wetland Association are in the business of wetland mitigation; including our newest sponsor – the South Carolina Mitigation Association.  We look forward to working together on wetland education, outreach, and development opportunities.

Finally, while not mitigation-related, but our Volunteer Wetlands Monitoring Project has partnered with Wildnote to use their mobile data application to collect field data.  We will be testing to the best methods for citizen scientists to perform wetland monitoring.  We are both very excited to see how this works out.

So, go beat the heat and explore a cool shaded wetland.

Rick

July Message from the Board

Dear Wetland Supporter,

Why do I love wetlands? Because they are full of LIFE. No matter what time of year you visit one, even in winter, surprising things are happening. Wetlands readily provide that essential to life – water – and organisms of all kinds take full advantage of it!

In spring, wetland plants are waking up. I love to watch the brown world turn green; it often happens earlier in wetlands than uplands. Look for things you can only see in spring: fern fiddleheads, ironwood catkins, violet flowers, tree leaf buds popping open. Spring bird migrations of large flocks can be seen in our coastal wetlands. Cricket frogs begin calling as the weather warms, as well as the North Carolina state frog – the uncommon Pine Barrens treefrog, which breeds in Sandhills and Coastal Plain wetlands in spring. 

Green Treefrog
Green Treefrog (Photo by Alvin Braswell)

In summer, our wetlands are glorious. Water lilies and Venus’ flytraps are blooming, cypress trees are soft and feathery, butterflies are fluttering, wading birds are hunting, wetland shrubs are blooming, tadpoles are wiggling, blueberries are fruiting, dragonflies are zooming, beavers are building, turtles are nesting…. Everywhere you look in a wetland, LIFE is obvious and it’s beautiful.

Water Lilies. (Photo provided by Rick Trone)

In fall, bursts of color in our red maple and tupelo swamps are fantastic. Wetlands provide important sources of rest and food for migrating fall warblers. In freshwater wetlands, look for hatchling turtles, buttonbush flowers turning to “buttons”, interesting seedheads on rushes and reeds, and fruits on tupelos and persimmons. Wet prairies are full of colorful fall wildflowers, and shrimp are moving out of their coastal wetland nursery grounds.

Pond cypress swamp in the fall. (Photo by Evan Gianopulos)

In winter, many salamanders in the Carolinas begin breeding after the first warm, heavy winter rains, especially in the Sandhills and Coastal Plain. Their eggs can be found in globular masses in the waters of temporary woodland pools or ephemeral wetlands. Winter is also an amazing time to see flocks of over-wintering waterfowl in our wetlands. In North Carolina, Lake Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes are famous for large numbers of snow geese, tundra swans, American coots, and other waterfowl. In South Carolina, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and Santee National Wildlife Refuge offer fine opportunities to see overwintering ducks, geese, red-winged blackbirds, and shorebirds in their wetlands. Winter and early spring are also great times to find aquatic macroinvertebrates in wetlands – including larval dragonflies, mayflies, water fleas, beetles, and snails. Next time you visit one, take a dip net and see LIFE what you can find!

Pine Warbler in the snow. (Photo by Alvin Braswell)

To help you find a wetland to visit, the NC Division of Water Resources recently published an interactive map of publicly accessible wetlands across North Carolina. They also have a printable wetlands passport, so you can check off where you’ve been and discover new places to visit. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources manages many preserves with wetlands. Our wetland treasures map is also a great way to find a beautiful wetland. 

Next time you are out and about, think about taking a little detour to see what LIFE you can find in one of our beautiful wetlands of the Carolinas!

Don’t forget – share your wetland vacation photos with us on Facebook and Instgram!

Kristie Gianopulos

Secretary, Carolina Wetlands Association

Wetlands Role in Water Quality

Abstract

One of the most important functions of wetlands is the ability to purify water and preserve water quality. Despite the integral role of wetlands in maintaining healthy ecosystems, they continue to be at risk of impacts by development, lack of legal protections, pollution, and the negative influences of climate change.  Wetlands provide numerous ecosystem services; one of which being their ability to improve water quality and help in maintaining water quantity. These critical services are only expected to become more important as freshwater becomes an increasingly limited resource.  It is therefore imperative that efforts are taken to preserve and restore our nation’s wetlands in order to retain our natural healthy waterways.

Agriculture and Preserving Wetlands: Benefits for Farmers, Communities, and Wildlife

Written by Sarah Morton

Introduction

Farmers are the backbone of our country.  They work day in and day out to produce the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, and so much more.  Farms also provide critical habitats for wildlife and can host many different types of ecosystems, including wetlands.  From the 1950s to the 1970s though, wetlands- half a million acres of them, were pumped dry so the land could be used for agriculture (Sucik and Marks, 2013).  Today, wetlands are still drained or filled in for urban developments but farmers that do this lose privileges to USDA grants.  Now, there are programs that pay for farmers to revert land back to wetlands and this can increase yields and protect vital resources for years to come.

As more time goes by, farmers are embracing wetlands on their property because of the benefits they provide.  Utilizing wetlands can help farmers manage pollution, increase the number of pollinators, and potentially keep their wells from running dry.  Each of these benefits can improve the productivity of their crops and protect surrounding communities and wildlife.

Managing Pollution

Farms are the number one source of nutrient pollution in streams.  Nutrient pollution consists of nitrates and phosphorus from fertilizers and/or manure being mixed with water and running downhill after precipitation events.  Contaminated runoff from both free range livestock farms and concentrated animal feeding operations can cause algal blooms, seen in Figure 1, which leads to a lack of oxygen in waterways (Kay, et al., 2021).  This lack of oxygen, also called hypoxia, has been responsible for many fish and shellfish kills here in the Carolinas.  Fish kills occurred for months after Hurricane Matthew as waste from farms was swept into creeks and streams (Dybas, 2018).

Figure 1. Photograph of algal bloom. Source: NC Division of Water Resources

Wetlands, whether they are natural or constructed, can deter these pollutants from entering waterways even at times when the water flows high due to large rainfall events (Kay, et al., 2021).  Nitrates are removed from runoff and surface water by wetland vegetation (University Study, 2020).  The use of this nutrient by wetland plants lessens the amount of nitrates reaching other waterbodies.  Wetland restoration or construction enhances general water quality and protects downstream communities from pollution.

Increasing Pollinator Populations

Farmers that grow crops rely on bees, flies, butterflies, and more to pollinate flowers which will enable fruit/vegetable growth.  As wild pollinator populations fall due to habitat loss, preserving or restoring wetlands may be a solution to increase crop productivity (Begosh, Smith, et al., 2020).    A study published in the scientific journal of Ecosystem Services of Wetlands shows that the number and diversity of hymenopterans- wasps, bees, sawflies, and ants, are influenced by wetland presence (Begosh, Smith, et al., 2020).  Larger populations of hymenopterans increase the likelihood of pollination, which will positively affect crop yields.

Potential Well Water Recharge

Over 43 million people in the United States source their water from wells on their property (USGS).  Of these millions, most live in rural areas, including the farmers we rely on.  Water is a crucial resource for any farmer whether they only have livestock or if they grow crops.

When it comes to water consumption, around 80% of all the water in the United States is used for agricultural purposes (USDA, 2019).  This water consumption can lower the water table potentially causing nearby wells to run dry.  While this is more common in western parts of the United States, it’s important to manage water resources on the east coast as well.

 Most wetlands are located at points where water is discharged from the water table.  Wetlands are commonly found at lower elevations where the water table sits.  Some wetlands, however, can actually recharge groundwater as seen in Figure 2 (Carter, 1997). This means that water within the wetland seeps into the water table below and moves away from the wetland.  These types of wetlands can recharge nearby wells and protect water resources for farmers and surrounding communities.

Figure 2 Diagram of wetland and groundwater interactions. Water in wetlands can be a result of discharge from the water table as seen in the top image, or can recharge groundwater seen in the bottom image. Source: USGS

Wetlands and agriculture go hand in hand.  Less water pollution, healthier populations of pollinators, and protecting water resources are just a few benefits wetlands provide.

Are you a farmer or do you know one? 

Financial assistance to restore wetlands on agricultural lands is available through the following Programs: 

Additional resources are available in Landowner’s Guide to Wetland Restoration

References

Carter, V. (1997). Wetland Hydrology, Water Quality, and Associated Functions. USGS. National Water Summary on Wetland Resources. Accessed 5/31/2021. Retrieved from: https://water.usgs.gov/nwsum/WSP2425/hydrology.html

Begosh, A., Smith, L.M., Park, C.N. et al. (2020, Oct). Effects of Wetland Presence and Upland Land Use on Wild Hymenopteran and Dipteran Pollinators in the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska, USA. Wetlands 40, 1017–1031 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13157-019-01244-w

Dybas, C.  (2018, May 2). Two decades of hurricanes change coastal ecosystems: increase algae blooms, fish kills, dead zones. National Science Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=245304

Kay, D., Clarke, A., Crowther, J., Davies, C., Francis, C. A., Stapleton, C. M., Watkins, J., Wyer, M. D. (2021, Feb 16). Effectiveness of Constructed Farm Wetlands In Attenuating Faecal Indicator Fluxes To Watercourses From Yard Runoff On Livestock Farms.  Water and Environment Journal.  DOI: 10.1111/wej.12700

NC Division of Water Resources. (n.d.). Blue-green Algae Fact Sheet.  Accessed 5/31/2021. Retrieved from: https://files.nc.gov/ncdeq/Water%20Quality/Environmental%20Sciences/FishKill/algae/Bluegreen%20Algae.pdf

Sucik, M. T. & Marks, E. (2013). The Status and Recent Trends of Wetlands in the United States. USDA.  Accessed 5/28/2021. Retrieved from: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1262239.pdf

University Study Shows Restoring Wetlands near Farms would Reduce Water Pollution. (2020, December 23). Legal Monitor Worldwide.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2019, Sep 23). Irrigation & Water Use. Accessed 5/28/2021. Retrieved from: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use/

About the Author

Sarah Morton

Sarah Morton is a student at Southern New Hampshire University studying environmental science with a concentration in natural resources and conservation.  After finishing her degree, her goal is to work closely with local farmers in North Carolina to protect and enhance soils for generations to come.

Blue Carbon: The Ecosystem Service Hidden Beneath Your Feet

Though their geographic extent may not rival that of their terrestrial counterparts, coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass beds and wetlands store carbon at the highest rates per unit area of natural ecosystems. Blue Carbon refers to the carbon stored in biomass – such as leaves and roots – and deep sediments of coastal and marine ecosystems. Increasingly referred to as “blue” due to proximity of the ocean, the carbon stored in these ecosystems has both internal and external sources, allowing the system to act as a carbon sink for an extensive area.

Blue carbon is found in marshes, seagrasses and tidal wetlands around the world.

Wetlands influenced by daily tides – known as tidal wetlands – are particularly important ecosystems when considering drawdown and storage of atmospheric and oceanic carbon. At low tide wetland vegetation utilizes and stores carbon from the atmosphere (CO2) during photosynthesis. When winter comes and this dense vegetation dies back, the carbon held within can be stored in the sediment. At high tide the vegetation slows oncoming waves allowing the sediment and carbon they carry to settle on the wetland surface. 

Wetlands can vertically increase gaining height often in pace with sea level rise. Over time and under the right conditions, these wetlands have the ability to vertically increase, gaining height often in pace with sea level rise in a way man-made structures (such as bulkheads or sea walls) cannot.

Wetlands can vertically increase gaining height often in pace with sea level rise.

This vertical growth provides the potential for un-saturated blue carbon burial and storage as sediment is deposited.

 

 

Potential for un-saturated blue carbon burial and storage as sediment is deposited.

Existing carbon stores, and the ability of tidal wetlands to continue to store carbon over time are increasingly at risk from natural and human-caused stressors including urban development and sea level rise. These stressors can degrade wetlands over time resulting in a transition from carbon sink, to source. With global annual loss between 0.7-7%, coastal ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate and releasing an estimated 0.15-1.02 billion tons of once stored carbon back into the atmosphere each year.

As a graduate student in North Carolina, I wanted to quantify what degradation and loss of wetlands would mean for the carbon stored within the soils of my state’s wetlands. My graduate research focuses on how effects from sea level rise including increased saltwater intrusion and erosion will affect existing carbon stores and future storage capacity of tidal wetlands within the Cape Fear River Estuary (CFRE).

Dark soil core rich in carbon from the Cape Fear River wetland.

By determining where carbon stores are located within the estuary and how fast they are growing I can determine – along with the current rate of sea level rise in the region – which carbon stores are at risk of being degraded and transformed from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Carbon storage is increasingly becoming one of the most important ecosystem services our coastal ecosystems can perform. As sea level rise continues to pose problems for our nation’s coastal communities, the ability of wetlands to evolve over time – unlike man-made structures which stay stagnant – is an incredibly powerful tool. My hope is by understanding how carbon stores within wetlands of the CFRE function and are impacted by effects of sea level rise, results from my research can inform local governments, land managers and environmental policy makers, and ensure future protection of these wetlands as valued ecosystems for the carbon they store.

Learn more about Blue Carbon

References

Fry, Brian. Stable Isotope Ecology. Springer, 2008.

Giese, G.L., Wilder, H.B. & Parker, G.G. Hydrology of Major Estuary & Sounds of North Carolina. U.S. Geological Survey- Water    Supply Paper 2221. 19-37.

McLeod, E., Chmura, G.L., Bouillon, S., et al. (2011). A blueprint for blue carbon: toward an improved understanding of the role of vegetated coastal habitats in sequestering CO2. Frontiers in Ecology. 9:10:552-560.

McTigue, N., Davis, J., Rodriguez, A. B.,McKee, B., Atencio, A., & Currin, C. (2019). Sea level rise explains changing carbon            accumulation rates in a salt marsh over the past two millennia. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 124.

Nittrouer, C.A., Sternberg, R.W., Carpenter, R. & Bennett, J.T. (1979). The use of Pb-210 geochronology as a sedimentological     tool: application to the Washington continental shelf. Marine Geology. 31: 297-316.

About the Author

A graduate student at UNC-Wilmington, Mackenzie Taggart [she, her] studies coastal wetland dynamics as a part of the Coastal & Estuarine Studies Lab under the advisement of Dr. Devon Eulie. After graduating in 2022 with a Masters in Marine Science, she hopes to continue her work by developing science-based policies to protect these valuable coastal ecosystems and the carbon they store.