Happy Thursday Everyone!
February 2nd was World Wetlands Day, so I thought it was only fitting to do a post about everyone’s favorite underrated ecosystem! The article elaborates on a new citizen science project that is spearheaded by The Blue Carbon Lab from Deakin University in Australia. Wetlands, such as marshes and swamps, can be instrumental in capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it (carbon sequestration), thereby helping mitigate global warming. However, not all wetlands possess awesome carbon-curtailing capabilities. Apparently, some wetlands are actually carbon emitters. The Blue Carbon Lab is attempting to map out the best and worst wetlands for carbon control by using tea bags! When the tea decays quickly, there is more carbon being released into the atmosphere. Conversely, if the tea decays more slowly, the wetland soil is better at retaining carbon. The researchers are using green tea, which degrades relatively quickly, for short-term monitoring, while the more robust rooibos (red) tea will be used for long-term monitoring. The entire project is expected to last three years. While the project is run by the Blue Carbon Lab, they are also reaching out to citizen scientists around the world to participate! If you live near a wetland, you can contact the Blue Carbon Lab to receive information about how you can contribute to the research.
I really enjoyed this article because I am all about researchers finding new cost-effective ways to advance science. One of my friends is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in The Blue Carbon Lab, so I sent her some questions about the tea project to get a little bit more information. She teamed up with a postdoc from the lab to provide BloggerheadSeaTurtle with some great photographs from Simon Peter Fox Photography and the following Q & A session! Hopefully, the Q & A helps clear up some questions people might have about the article and blue carbon research in general.
BloggerheadSeaTurtle (BST): This innovative research project is one of many conducted by the Blue Carbon Lab at Deakin University. What is “Blue Carbon?”
Ph.D. Candidate Ashley Whitt (AW): Blue Carbon refers to the coastal habitats (seagrasses, mangroves, and marshes) that are incredible at capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and then storing that carbon way for centuries to millennia.
BST: By “carbon” are you referring to only carbon dioxide? Or are there other concerning carbon-based gases?
AW: Our lab is working with methane as well. Some of these coastal habitats are great at trapping and storing carbon dioxide but could also be releasing methane, a greenhouse gas. Other projects that The Blue Carbon Lab are taking on are focused on trying to understand how flooding inland marshes impacts methane emissions.
BST: Why is carbon sequestration so important for the environment?
AW: To combat climate change, we need a game plan that will limit fossil fuel emissions, and we need to figure out how to essentially suck up the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. To put it simply, we need to learn how to turn off the faucet and drain the tub before it overflows. Blue carbon habitats are like giant sponges. They suck up atmospheric carbon and can store it in their plant biomass, but they are also incredible at locking away carbon in their soils. If you have ever visited a marsh before, you would know it is a really muddy environment. Seagrasses, mangroves, and marshes help trap the mud which is made up of a bunch of organic matter which gets buried before it can be rematerialized, meaning it gets broken down and becomes carbon dioxide. So why should we care about carbon sequestration? We need solutions for combating climate change! By understanding blue carbon, we can build a case for why governments should protect these habitats and use carbon credit taxes to help restore and preserve them.
BST: The outcome of this research should be a comprehensive overview of which wetlands are the best and worst for carbon storage. While the article mentioned investing energy into the best wetlands for carbon sequestering, what are the plans for the wetlands that are found to actually be emitting carbon into the environment? Would it be better to just build airports or roads on top of the “worst” wetlands? Or do these bad wetlands still have important environmental functions even though they emit carbon?
Postdoc Dr. Stacey Trevathan-Tackett (STT): It very well could happen that we find some wetlands that are big greenhouse gas emitters. One of the important questions that our group and colleagues at other universities are researching is ‘why are some wetlands such high emitters and not others?’ Are there certain conditions that make the wetlands (and their soil microbes) ripe for carbon sequestration or emission? Once we are clear on those drivers, we can then hypothesize on potential ways to manage emissions. Even if there is no way to reduce carbon emissions in some wetlands, these ecosystems provide huge services to the environment and humans. To name just a few examples briefly, coastal wetlands like seagrass, mangrove, and saltmarsh ecosystems help stabilize our coastlines and are important nursery and/or habitats to many commercially and recreationally important fisheries. Inland wetlands are important to biodiversity in addition to providing flood protection and pollution filtering services.
BST: Are there concerns about animals smelling and digging up the tea bags or possible flooding removing the samples? Are the bags protected somehow?
STT: We are burying the bags 10-15 cm deep so that there is consistency with sediment conditions and we can avoid some issues that would come with leaving them on the sediment surface (wave action, animal or human curiosity, differences in sunlight, strong storm conditions, etc). We hope that burying also provides some protecting from animals, but since the bags are fragrant, there is a risk for the bags being of interest to animals, at least at the beginning of the experiment. Erosion, human disturbances (e.g. propeller scars), or even crab burrows in mangroves would be examples of other ways we could potentially lose tea bags. However, the participants who are involved in the project will know their sites well and could take into account all these factors before deploying bags. Because of that, we are confident that lost tea bags shouldn’t be much of an issue.
BST: The article says that “citizen scientists” near wetlands can contribute to this project. What if someone has no experience with research? Could they still contribute?
STT: We believe that TeaComposition H2O has great potential for engaging people in their local wetland environments (including seagrass, mangrove, saltmarsh, inland wetlands and shallow water bodies). Since this is a 2-3 year project, there is some commitment for time and some resources (for example, a scale to weigh the tea bags before and after). Since there are so many great citizen scientists groups in the world, there is a great opportunity for citizen scientists to connect with those groups to have coordinated participation in TeaComposition H2O. There may even be opportunities for us to provide method training in the future. That’s not to say keen citizen scientists can’t go solo! If someone is interested in participating, I can send them a methods cheat sheet that outlines the requirements to see if they are achievable. If there are still questions, we are also working on an FAQ webpage, and I can be reached by email.
BST: Some people, unfortunately, do not live near a wetland habitat. Do you know any other ways citizen scientists could help advance research?
STT: Because this is a long-term project, citizen scientists would likely find it easier (and more socially engaging) if they were able to link up with a citizen science group. If this project isn’t a fit this time, there may be other opportunities near you. From experience, researchers and non-profit environmental organizations are on the look-out for motivated and dedicated volunteers for ongoing projects and research.