The next generation of biological carbon sequestration work is taking place at three national wildlife refuges near Albemarle Sound in North Carolina and Virginia with help from almost a dozen partners.
The refugesAlligator River, Great Dismal Swamp and Pocosin Lakes are bound by an ancient ecosystem called pocosin, the Algonquin Indian word for swamp on a hill. The refuges comprise 375,000 acres, the largest ownership of pocosin wetlands in the eastern United States.
Beneath forests of pond pines, white cedars and a dense shrub understory, the chocolatecolored soils are layered with thousands of years of slowly decaying organic material. The most precious ingredient in these pocosins, or peatlands, is the carbonrich peat soil.
Despite comprising only three percent of Earths land area in places that include Alaska, Canada and Russia, peatlands hold onethird of the worlds carbon, Curtis Richardson of the Duke University Wetland Center said at a partner meeting this spring at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Richardson is leading cuttingedge research at the refuge to quantify peat soil carbon storage.
The goal of keeping that carbon locked away has rallied a long list of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partners playing important science or funding roles. They include The Nature Conservancy (TNC), The Conservation Fund, the states of North Carolina and Virginia, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Duke, Christopher Newport and North Carolina State universities.
Sara Ward, an ecologist with the Services Environmental Contaminants Program in the Raleigh ecological services field office, compared the effort to an oldfashioned barnraising. With limited budgets, were pulling together lots of different resources, looking for help and ways to help our partners.
Under natural conditions, the peat soaks up rainfall and the carbon remains stable, locked away in the deep soils that reach 12 feet or more below the surface.
But starting in the 1700s, swaths of Albemarle Sound were ditched and drained for farms and pine plantations. George Washington was a famous early proponent of the practice to harvest Atlantic white cedar and bald cypress from Great Dismal Swamp.
Without enough water, the peat dries up, releases carbon (a climatechanging greenhouse gas) and becomes a fire hazard. While healthy pocosins need periodic fire, drainage makes them vulnerable to severe fires that burn underground, particularly during drought years. Last year, fires ignited in Alligator River and the Great Dismal Swamp Refuges burned about 52,000 acres combined. In addition to the ecological and greenhouse gas impact, the fires are costly: Fire suppression at the three refuges has cost more than $50 million since 2008. Furthermore, the loss of soil and associated elevation makes these lowlying coastal refuges more susceptible to sealevel rise.
The solution is to return the water to the peatlands and mimic natural seasonal fluctuations by installing water control structures in some of the thousands of ditches. In addition to storing carbon, rewetting the pocosins is good for wildlife, water quality, nearby human communities and increased resiliency to climate change.
TNC is attracting donors and recently matched a $250,000 investment by the Service to restore the hydrology at Alligator River and Great Dismal Swamp Refuges. Pocosin Lakes Refuge has already restored 20,000 acres of pocosin wetlands, which are retaining an estimated 130 million pounds of carbon annually. Thats equivalent to 11,000 cars emissions. Restoration of 15,000 more acres is planned.
Katherine D. Skinner, executive director of TNCs North Carolina chapter, said understanding and restoring the hydrology on [Alligator River and Great Dismal Swamp Refuges], in addition to the work in place at Pocosin Lakes Refuge, is monumental to advance good conservation and minimize the effects of climate change as much as possible.
Stacy Shelton is a public affairs specialist in the Southeast Region office in Atlanta.