Climate scientists unlock secrets of ‘blue carbon’

By Jeff Tollefson

Tidal wetlands come in many forms, but they could be more alike below the surface than anyone realized. Whether it’s a mangrove forest in Florida, a freshwater swamp in Virginia or a saltwater marsh in Oregon, the amount of carbon locked in a soil sample from each of these coastal ecosystems is roughly the same.

That’s the surprising message from a new analysis of some 1,900 soil cores collected around the United States during the past few decades. “In terms of carbon stocks, all tidal wetlands are very, very similar,” says Lisamarie Windham-Myers, an ecologist with the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California, who is leading a 3-year, US$1.5-million assessment of coastal carbon funded by NASA. “The variability that everybody expected just doesn’t exist.”

Her team presented its findings last month in New Orleans, Louisiana, at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union; the researchers plan to publish data from 1,500 soil cores online as early as this month, and hope to release information on the remaining 400 later this year. 

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