Wetlands, carbon, and climate change

Abstract

Wetland ecosystems provide an optimum natural environment for the sequestration and long-term storage of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, yet are natural sources of greenhouse gases emissions, especially methane. We illustrate that most wetlands, when carbon sequestration is compared to methane emissions, do not have 25 times more CO2 sequestration than methane emissions; therefore, to many landscape managers and non specialists, most wetlands would be considered by some to be sources of climate warming or net radiative forcing. We show by dynamic modeling of carbon flux results from seven detailed studies by us of temperate and tropical wetlands and from 14 other wetland studies by others that methane emissions become unimportant within 300 years compared to carbon sequestration in wetlands. Within that time frame or less, most wetlands become both net carbon and radiative sinks. Furthermore, we estimate that the world’s wetlands, despite being only about 5–8 % of the terrestrial landscape, may currently be net carbon sinks of about 830 Tg/year of carbon with an average of 118 g-C m−2 year−1 of net carbon retention. Most of that carbon retention occurs in tropical/subtropical wetlands. We demonstrate that almost all wetlands are net radiative sinks when balancing carbon sequestration and methane emissions and conclude that wetlands can be created and restored to provide C sequestration and other ecosystem services without great concern of creating net radiative sources on the climate due to methane emissions.

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Acknowledgments

This research was partially supported by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants EM-83329801-0 and MX95413108-0 the U.S. Department of Energy Grant DE-FG02-04ER63834 and National Science Foundation Grants CBET-1033451 and CBET-0829026. We thank A. Altor, B. Kohlmann, C. Hernandez, J. Yeomans and many researchers and students at the Olentangy River Wetlands for assistance in field research. Ü. Mander was supported with a Fulbright fellowship as a visiting scientist to the Olentangy River Wetland Research Park. A. Mischo kindly assisted with the illustrations. Olentangy River Wetland Research Park Publication 2012-0xx.

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Correspondence to William J. Mitsch.

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Mitsch, W.J., Bernal, B., Nahlik, A.M. et al. Wetlands, carbon, and climate change. Landscape Ecol 28, 583–597 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-012-9758-8

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Keywords

  • Carbon dioxide
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Marsh
  • Methane
  • Methanogenesis
  • Peatland
  • Swamp
  • Global carbon budget