The role of carbon dioxide in climate change is pretty well established. For the most part, most people are aware of the huge impact that plants and tress play in helping to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. However, as well as land forests, did you know that coastal and marine ecosystems actually play a huge and significant role in reducing carbon levels?
What Is Blue Carbon?
Simply put, blue carbon is the name given to the carbon which is captured and stored by the earth’s coastal and marine ecosystems. This carbon is stored deep underground, where it can remain for thousands of years. Three main types of coastal ecosystems which play a key role, storing approximately half of all blue carbon, are mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrasses.
Why Are Blue Carbon Ecosystems Important?
One of the biggest and most obvious roles played by these coastal and marine ecosystems is their ability to sequester and store carbon. As such, they are important carbon sinks and play a significant role in helping to mitigate climate change. Despite being significantly smaller in size than the planet’s land forests, covering less than 2% of the planet’s total ocean area, these ecosystems can sequester carbon at a much faster rate.
In fact, mangrove forests can store up to 10 times as much carbon as a forest on land. This is mostly due to the fact that the carbon can remain trapped and undisturbed in the soil for a much longer period of time. Moreover, as the conditions where these ecosystems exist tend to be low-oxygen conditions, the soil beneath the water is in fact able to lock the carbon in for centuries.
Yet, their importance is not merely restricted to their carbon storage. These coastal and marine ecosystems play a vital role in providing nursery grounds for many young fish and shellfish. They play an important part in biodiversity, creating habitats for various marine species. Additionally, these ecosystems help to support and maintain water quality throughout the world’s coastlines.
Another highly important role of the coastal and marine ecosystems, is the protection of coastal communities. These ecosystems form a natural defence against flooding, storm surges and rising sea levels.
Consequences of Damaging Blue Carbon Ecosystems
One of the biggest consequences of coastal and marine ecosystem deforestation is the large quantities of carbon that are released. When they are cut down or the ground beneath them is disturbed, large amounts of carbon which had previously been stored, begin to be slowly released into the atmosphere once again. This results in higher levels of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere once again and contributes to climate change.
Deforestation of these vital ecosystems will also leave coastal communities much more exposed and defenceless to flooding and the negative impacts of storms and rising sea levels.
How Much Has Already Been Lost?
Sadly, we have already lost a significant amount.
· Are being lost at a rate of 2% per year.
· 50% of the world’s mangroves have been lost since the 1940s.
· Are being lost at a rate of between 1-2% per year.
· 25% of the world’s tidal marshes have been lost since the 1800s.
· Are being lost at a rate of 1.5% per year.
· 50% of the world’s seagrasses have been lost since 1990.
· Despite covering only 0.2% of the ocean floor, they store approximately 10% of the carbon which is buried in the ocean every year.
What Can Be Done?
Given their great importance and the significant impact that they can have in helping to mitigate against the effects of climate change, increasing action is now being taken to protect the world’s coastal and marine ecosystems.
Throughout the world, countries are signing up to various initiatives (such as The Blue Carbon Initiative) which have been established to primarily conserve and restore these vital ecosystems. Moreover, many of the initiatives are working with local and national governments to undertake important conservation work, as well as help influence policy and include coastal ecosystem management in their national climate change mitigation strategies and activities.
There is also growing research being undertaken globally into the impact and importance of these ecosystems. Another important action that is being undertaken is raising the profile of the costal and marine ecosystems, raising general awareness and understanding of the importance of blue carbon and helping to educate people, particularly future generations.
Initiatives in Scotland
Within Scotland, there are a number of initiatives in place helping to support conservation, restoration and research. These include work being undertaken by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Scottish Blue Carbon Forum, which is a research programme developed by Marine Scotland in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage and a range of universities across Scotland.
In Scotland alone, it has been estimated that the amount of carbon being stored by these marine ecosystems equates to approximately 52% of Scotland’s carbon emissions in 2011. Scotland’s seas have a wonderful array of blue carbon habitats. These include seagrass beds, kelp forests, salt-marches, biogenic reefs and maerl beds.
A critical step in protecting our blue carbon habitats is helping to raise awareness and sharing knowledge about their importance and the vital role they play. As such, this week, we invite you to view some of the video links below and share them with your family and friends.
If you have children, it can be an enjoyable activity to create a poster raising awareness about blue carbon. Allowing children to explain the concept in their own words can be especially helpful and will allow you to share and participate in an activity together.
Educating ourselves, as well as those around us, can be one of the most powerful and important actions we can each take in our journey towards living more sustainably and protecting our planet. As always, we invite you to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.