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Variability and Vulnerability of Coastal ‘Blue Carbon’ Stocks: A Case Study from Southeast Australia

Abstract

‘Blue carbon’ ecosystems—seagrasses, tidal marshes, and mangroves—serve as dense carbon sinks important for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, yet only recently have stock estimates emerged. We sampled 96 blue carbon ecosystems across the Victorian coastline (southeast Australia) to quantify total sediment stocks, variability across spatial scales, and estimate emissions associated with historical ecosystem loss. Mean sediment organic carbon (Corg) stock (±SE) to a depth of 30 cm was not significantly different between tidal marshes (87.1 ± 4.90 Mg Corg ha−1) and mangroves (65.6 ± 4.17 Mg Corg ha−1), but was significantly lower in seagrasses (24.3 ± 1.82 Mg Corg ha−1). Location (defined as an individual meadow, marsh, or forest) had a stronger relationship with Corg stock than catchment region, suggesting local-scale conditions drive variability of stocks more than regional-scale processes. We estimate over 2.90 million ± 199,000 Mg Corg in the top 30 cm of blue carbon sediments in Victoria (53% in tidal marshes, 36% in seagrasses, and 11% in mangroves) and sequestration rates of 22,700 ± 5510 Mg Corg year−1 (valued at over $AUD1 million ± 245,000 year−1 based on the average price of $AUD12.14 Mg CO2 eq−1 at Australian Emissions Reduction Fund auctions). We estimate ecosystem loss since European settlement may equate to emissions as high as 4.83 million ± 358,000 Mg CO2 equivalents (assuming 90% remineralization of stocks), 98% of which was associated with tidal marsh loss, and what would have been sequestering 9360 ± 2500 Mg Corg year−1. This study is among the first to present a comprehensive comparison of sediment stocks across and within coastal blue carbon ecosystems. We estimate substantial and valuable carbon stocks associated with these ecosystems that have suffered considerable losses in the past and need protection into the future to maintain their role as carbon sinks.

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Acknowledgements

We thank our volunteers, especially Ellen Rochelmeyer, Chris Taylor, and Catherine Cavallo. We thank the Victorian Coastal Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) for their support and funding: Marty Gent & Glenelg Hopkins CMA, Chris Pitfield & Corangamite CMA, Emmaline Froggatt & Port Phillip Westernport CMA, Belinda Brennan & West Gippsland CMA, and Rex Candy & East Gippsland CMA. Funding was also provided by an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellowship (DE130101084) and an Australian Research Council Linkage Project (LP160100242). CJEL also thanks the University of Technology Sydney for scholarship support.

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Correspondence to Carolyn J. Ewers Lewis.

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Ewers Lewis, C.J., Carnell, P.E., Sanderman, J. et al. Variability and Vulnerability of Coastal ‘Blue Carbon’ Stocks: A Case Study from Southeast Australia. Ecosystems 21, 263–279 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-017-0150-z

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Keywords

  • blue carbon
  • soil carbon
  • stocks
  • tidal marsh
  • saltmarsh
  • mangrove
  • seagrass
  • greenhouse gas emissions
  • climate change
  • coastal