Perspectives on coastal climate work

The first half of my fellowship has been such an incredible experience of working with experts in conservation science and policy and learning how science can support policy and vice-versa. My fellowship project is a general exploration of how blue carbon pathways operate in Oregon’s coastal ecosystems, how they may contribute to the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, and who is currently doing the work. Blue carbon as a climate mitigation strategy is a fairly recent development, and the research is still in its early stages in the Pacific Northwest. My fellowship work will hopefully help inform how blue carbon can fit into Oregon’s natural and working lands.

To be honest, it’s hard to think about climate change daily without having to manage some amount of climate anxiety. The crisis we face is at a scale bigger than comprehension, and at times it’s hard to imagine blue carbon alone having a large enough impact to offset—let alone reduce—carbon emissions to have a positive climate effect. At the same time, defeatism is less than helpful, and it’s simply incorrect to believe that nothing we do can mitigate climate change and its effects. There will not be one solution. It will take a lot of people working in lots of ways to tackle the challenge, to change systems and turn the tide. Natural climate solutions (NCS), including blue carbon, is one tool we have to approach climate and biodiversity issues. NCS use conservation and restoration strategies to enhance climate benefits but does not elevate carbon reduction above ecosystem function. This is one aspect that I appreciate about NCS—it does not look at nature as a technology to maximize carbon sequestration but instead values ecosystem health and function for multifaceted benefits.

I had struggled initially because carbon crediting seems to focus simply on the most ‘productive’ estuarine systems that build carbon-rich soils However, many of the people working on blue carbon do not think of carbon projects as simply carbon farms that are separated from ecosystem function. There is deliberate consideration of the inherent value of coastal and nearshore ecosystems alongside the many ecosystem services, of which carbon is one. This attitude shared by my new colleagues is really a heartening one, and I’ve been supported in considering the role of complex oceanic ecosystems (like kelp forests) that are critical Oregon coastal habitat and sequester carbon.

Aequorea among bull kelp

Chasing Carbon on the Oregon Coast

Hi all! My name is Joanna and I’m excited to join the community of Oregon Sea Grant Scholars for the 2021-2022 Natural Resource Policy Fellowship. I matched with The Nature Conservancy as my host organization to explore Blue Carbon in Oregon. Blue Carbon refers to any carbon stored within soils or biomass in coastal and marine ecosystems: think salt marshes, eelgrass, and kelp forests, for example. There has been recent focus on protecting and restoring these habitats, in part because they are so good at absorbing and sequestering atmospheric carbon and can be part of the solution to mitigate the effects of climate change. (Although, of course, the greatest reduction effects would be seen from drastically reducing fossil fuel consumption.) Natural Climate Solutions—including Blue Carbon—provide this essential service in addition to myriad co-benefits that support coastal biological and human communities.

Much of Blue Carbon science has been conducted in the tropics and typically framed in terms those tropical ecosystems. Salt marshes and seagrasses are common to both the tropics and the Pacific Northwest, but mangrove forests—understood to be the most effective carbon storage ecosystem—do not occur in the PNW. We do, however, have Sitka spruce swamps which tolerate the salinity of tidally influenced wetlands and store incredible amounts of carbon in soils and woody biomass. Additionally, many of the oceanic sources of Blue Carbon are not well incorporated into our understanding of carbon pathways in Oregon. My project seeks to understand the potential role of Blue Carbon to reach Oregon’s carbon reduction targets and to finance restoration through carbon credits.

The first few months of this fellowship have been a whirlwind of learning about Blue Carbon science, meeting many of the amazing people who work and are interested in this space, and changing the way I think about science and the ways it’s applied in the world. My background in marine science led me to approach problems using a fairly rigid framework—formulating research questions, deriving hypotheses, constructing methodologies—but working in applied science and policy has certainly challenged the way I think about approaching projects. Scientific rigor is, of course, still needed as the foundation for effective climate policy, but I’ve learned to put more emphasis on human elements—relationships between people and the lands and waters on which they depend, and connections between partners and stakeholders to implement change. I’m excited to continue exploring established and frontier Blue Carbon pathways, and connecting with partners and policymakers during the course of my fellowship.

Looking over the wetlands at Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge