Assessment of Carbon Sequestration Potential in Coastal Wetlands



This paper describes model (Marsh Equilibrium Model) simulations of the unit area carbon sequestration potential of contemporary coastal wetlands before and following a projected 1 m rise in sea level over the next century. Unit rates ranged typically from 0.2 to 0.3 Mg C ha−1 year−1 depending primarily on the rate of sea-level rise, tidal amplitude, and the concentration of suspended sediment (TSS). Rising sea level will have a significant effect on the carbon sequestration of existing wetlands, and there is an optimum tide range and TSS that maximize sequestration. In general, the results show that carbon sequestration and inventories are greatest in mesotidal estuaries. Marshes with tidal amplitudes <50 cm and TSS < 20 mg l−1 are unlikely to survive a 1 m rise in sea level during the next century. The majority of the United States coastline is dominated by tidal amplitude less than 1 m. The areal extent of coastal wetlands will decrease following a 1 m rise in sea level if existing wetland surfaces <1 m fail to maintain elevation relative to mean sea level, i.e. expansion by transgression will be limited by topography. On the other hand, if the existing vegetated surfaces survive, coastal wetland area could expand by 71%, provided there are no anthropogenic barriers to migration. The model-derived contemporary rate of carbon sequestration for the conterminous United States was estimated to be 0.44 Tg C year−1, which is at the low end of earlier accounts. Following a 1 m rise in sea level, with 100% survival of existing wetland surfaces, rates of carbon sequestration rise to 0.58 and 0.73 Tg C year−1 at TSS = 20 and 80 mg l−1, respectively, or 32–66% higher than the contemporary rate. Globally, carbon sequestration by coastal wetlands accounts for probably less than 0.2% of the annual fossil fuel emission. Thus, coastal wetlands sequester a small fraction of global carbon fluxes, though they take on more significance over long time scales. The deposits of carbon in wetland soils are large. There have been large losses of coastal wetlands due to their conversion to other land uses, which creates opportunities for restoration that are locally significant.


Marsh equilibrium model Suspended solids Carbon sequestration Coastal ecosystems Coastal wetlands Tidal marshes Mangroves Carbon stocks Autochthonous Sea level rise Anthropogenic disturbance Holocene Organic rich soil Subsidence Diking Drainage Digital elevation model Tide range Primary productivity Tidal amplitude 



standing biomass density




depth of the marsh surface below MHW


Digital Elevation Model




greenhouse gas


Marsh Equilibrium Model


mean high water


mean sea level




National Wetlands Inventory


organic matter


rate of sea-level rise


refractory fraction of root and rhizome production


root and rhizome production


root:shoot quotient


sediment dry bulk density


settling velocity


Shuttle Radar Topography Mission


soil organic carbon


suspended solids




tide range


total suspended solids


trapping coefficient



This work was supported by grants from the NSF, SERDP, NOAA and USGS. No endorsement of the conclusions by these agencies is implied. Contribution no. 1644 of the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine & Coastal Sciences, University of South Carolina.


  1. An S, Li H, Guan B et al (2007) China’s natural wetlands: past problems, current status, and future challenges. Ambio 36:335–342PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Armentano TV, Menges ES (1986) Patterns of changes in the carbon balance of organic soil- wetlands of the temperate zone. J Ecol 74:755–774CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bridgham SD, Megonigal JP, Keller JK et al (2006) The carbon balance of North American wetlands. Wetlands 26:889–916Google Scholar
  4. Canadell JG, Pataki D, Gifford R et al (2007) Saturation of the terrestrial C sinks, Chapter 6. In: Canadell JG, Pataki D, Pitelka L (eds) Terrestrial ecosystems in a changing world, The IGBP series. Springer, BerlinCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chmura GL, Anisfeld SC, Cahoon DR et al (2003) Global carbon sequestration in tidal, saline wetland soils. Glob Biogeochem Cycle 17. doi: 10.1029/2002GB00197
  6. Choi Y, Wang Y (2004) Dynamics of carbon sequestration in a coastal wetland using radiocarbon measurements. Glob Biogeochem Cycle 18, GB4016. doi: 10.1029/2004GB002261
  7. Dahl TE (2011) Status and trends of wetlands in the conterminous United States 2004 to 2009. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  8. Donato DC, Kauffman JB, Murdiyarso D et al (2011) Mangroves among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics. Nat Geosci 4:293–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Farr TG, Rosen PA, Caro E et al (2007) The shuttle radar topography mission. Rev Geophys 45, RG2004 1:33Google Scholar
  10. Freeman C, Ostle N, Hojeong K (2001) An enzymic ‘latch’ on a global carbon store. Nature 409:149PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Freeman C, Ostle NJ, Fenner N et al (2004) A regulatory role for phenol oxidase during decomposition in peatlands. Soil Biol Biochem 36:1663–1667CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Friedrichs C, Perry J (2001) Tidal salt marsh morphodynamics. J Coast Res Special Issue 27:7–37Google Scholar
  13. Gehrels WR, Horton BP, Kemp AC et al (2011) Sivan Sea-level records of the last 2000 years hold the key to understanding contemporary and future sea-level change. EOS Trans Am Geophys Union 92:289–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Harrison AF, Bocock KL (1981) Estimation of soil bulk-density from loss-on-ignition value. J Appl Ecol 18:919–927CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. He Y, Zhang MX (2001) Study on wetland loss and its reasons in China. Chin Geogr Sci 11:241–245CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hedges JI, Hu FS, Devol AH et al (1999) Sedimentary organic matter preservation: a test for selective degradation under oxic conditions. Am J Sci 299:529–555CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Jeffrey DW (1970) A note on the use of ignition loss as a means for the approximate estimation of soil bulk density. J Ecol 58:297–299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kirwan ML, Guntenspergen GR, D’Alpaos A et al (2010) Limits on the adaptability of coastal marshes to rising sea level. Geophys Res Lett 37:L23401. doi: 10.1029/2010GL045489 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Krone RB (1985) Simulation of marsh growth under rising sea levels. In: Waldrop WR (ed) Hydraulics and hydrology in the small computer age. Hydraulics Division of the ASCE, Lake Buena VistaGoogle Scholar
  20. McKee KL, Patrick WH Jr (1988) The relationship of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) to tidal datums: a review. Estuaries 11:143–151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Mcleod E, Chmura GL, Bouillon S et al (2011) A blueprint for blue carbon: toward an improved understanding of the role of vegetated coastal habitats in sequestering CO2. Front Ecol Environ 9:552–560CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Mitra S, Wassmann R, Vlek PLG (2005) An appraisal of global wetland area and its organic carbon stock. Curr Sci 88:25–35Google Scholar
  23. Morris JT (2007) Estimating net primary production of salt-marsh macrophytes, Chapter 7. In: Fahey TJ, Knapp AK (eds) Principles and standards for measuring primary production. Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar
  24. Morris JT, Sundareshwar PV, Nietch CT et al (2002) Responses of coastal wetlands to rising sea level. Ecology 83:2869–2877CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Redfield AC, Rubin M (1962) The age of salt marsh peat and its relation to recent changes in sea level at Barnstable Massachusetts. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 48:1728–1734PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Reed DJ (1995) The response of coastal marshes to sea-level rise: survival or submergence? Earth Surf Process Landf 20:39–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Rodriguez E, Morris CS, Belz JE (2006) Global assessment of the SRTM performance. Photogramm Eng Remote Sens 72:249–260Google Scholar
  28. Shipp RC, Belknap DF, Kelley JT (1991) Seismic-stratigraphic and geomorphic evidence for a post-glacial sea-level lowstand in the northern Gulf of Maine. J Coast Res 7:341–364Google Scholar
  29. Turner RE, Swenson EM, Milan CS (2001) Organic and inorganic contributions to vertical accretion in salt marsh sediments. In: Weinstein MP, Kreeger DA (eds) Concepts and controversies in tidal marsh ecology. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  30. Yang S, Chen J (1995) Coastal salt marsh and mangrove swamps in China. Chin J Oceanogr Limnol 13:318–324CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Belle Baruch Institute for Marine & Coastal SciencesUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA
  2. 2.Marine Sciences ProgramUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA
  3. 3.Climate Change ServicesESA PWA | Environmental HydrologySan FranciscoUSA
  4. 4.Department of BiologyEast Carolina UniversityGreenvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations