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Viewpoint: Filling the knowledge gap on wetlands and carbon

Saskatoon Star Phoenix
October 1, 2016

Here’s a fact about wetlands that many Canadians may find surprising: According to Agriculture Canada, the peat in Canada’s wetlands stores almost 60 per cent of all the carbon stored in all the soils across the country.

Further, those 147 billion tonnes of carbon stored in Canadian wetlands are more than 700 times the annual CO2 emissions from all industrial activity in Canada.

This tremendous ability to store carbon while supporting habitat for numerous animal and plant species makes Canada’s wetlands critically important to our natural environment. And the more we learn about these wetlands, the better able we’ll be to conserve them.

While we’ve known that wetlands both in Canada and globally store huge amounts of carbon, and while we understand it’s important to store carbon, reduce CO2 emissions and mitigate climate change, we’re also aware that we need a greater understanding of how best to measure the carbon stored in wetlands.

In terms of carbon management generally, it’s crucial that researchers understand how much carbon is stored both in trees and soil. Today, methods and tools for carbon measurement are well established for upland forests because these types of dry forests have been studied for decades. By comparison, we know much less about carbon measurement in wetlands, where trees are smaller and areas are water saturated and difficult to operate in.

That’s why the Saskatchewan Research Council has teamed up with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Louisiana-Pacific (LP) and Spruce Products (SP), both SFI Program Participants, and Ducks Unlimited Canada to develop a rapid assessment tool to measure carbon storage in wetlands.

There’s been very little motivation in the past for forest managers to go out into the field and quantify carbon stored in Canadian wetlands; it’s difficult to sample waterlogged areas that, in general, are not managed by forest professionals. And yet the overall numbers generated earlier by the Government of Canada show that it’s crucial we understand wetlands-stored carbon much, much better.

Forest managers are now taking an ecosystem view of their landscapes and need to know how wetlands and uplands are related, and how forestry activities affect wetland values. Unlike upland forests where carbon depth runs to about 30 centimetres, wetlands are a three-dimensional system, and carbon in wetlands can be stored two or three metres deep, complicating carbon measurement.

The goal of the project is to develop a rapid protocol that is usable by forest professionals in the real world to get credible estimates of carbon storage in wetlands that are reasonably accurate and durable.

More specifically, we are working to develop a protocol that doesn’t just look impressive in a lab setting, but that provides results in the real world. That means not only developing the assessment steps, but testing them in the field with LP and SP near Swan River in Western Manitoba, where a crew has been on the ground all summer, taking measurements of peat depth and extracting peat cores in order to complete the required calculations.

As we’ve refined the tool and the LP crew has recently wrapped up the sampling exercise, several hundreds of core samples are set to go to the lab to be tested against the new protocol. The samples will be analyzed for carbon content and bulk density, and peat depth will be plugged in so that a calculation can be made of the total mass of carbon in wetlands. The protocol should apply widely to wetlands in Saskatchewan and other SFI-certified landscapes.

On top of this, we’re using published estimates of vegetation in other parts of the boreal forest so our team can conduct a rapid assessment of vegetation (above ground) in the wetlands.

As collaborations go, this one is especially strong: I’m thankful SFI has seen value in supporting our work through its Conservation & Community Grants Partnerships, while LP and SP have donated the land base and crew, and DUC has included this work in its cross-Canada wetlands mapping project for which it is working toward a nationwide carbon database.

We’re only in year one of this three-year project, and the project team can see the value of the work emerging already. For the project team, the issue is simple. There’s a tremendous amount of carbon in our wetlands. So it follows that their conservation is important – not only for carbon, but for habitat and other values.

And accomplishing that takes good science.

Mark Johnston is a senior research scientist at the Saskatchewan Research Council.

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