USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has awarded a two-year, $300,000 grant to an interdisciplinary group of researchers from UMass Amherst to develop tools to estimate the mass of carbon stored in salt marshes. Brian Yellen of the geosciences department has spearheaded this effort, and will work with Konstantinos Andreadis of civil and environmental engineering and Justin Richardson, Jonathan Woodruff, and Qian Yu of the geosciences department. The team will combine field-based observations with high-resolution topographic maps generated from lidar data in order to map the carbon content of salt marshes across the Northeast United States. The team expects that their methods will be applicable across global salt marshes to help refine estimates of total “blue carbon” inventories.
About a third of human carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the ocean, with roughly half of that carbon ultimately locked up in tidal wetlands like salt marshes. Salt marshes are exceptionally productive, growing more biomass each year than any other ecosystem. In response to sea level rise, they build vertically through the accumulation of root matter and mud, and thus store carbon in thick peat deposits. This combination of productivity and continual organic matter accumulation allows salt marshes to sequester roughly twenty times more carbon per unit area than mature forest.
In addition to storing carbon, salt marshes provide nursery habitat to many economically valuable fish stocks and act as a physical barrier to coastal storms. Yellen points out, “It’s only a matter of time before we put a price on carbon. Accurate estimates of carbon storage in salt marshes will be a huge help to motivate their conservation.” Salt marshes currently face threats from accelerating sea level rise and coastal pollution.
This work on salt marsh resiliency fits into a broad suite of funded projects currently underway within the Sediment and Coastal Dynamics Lab at UMass.