A blue carbon future

Human-induced climate change is one of the biggest threats to life and livelihoods on the planet. To reduce levels of greenhouse gases and protect against the effects of climate change, scientists are now turning to coastal vegetation.

In March 2017, researchers and policymakers from four continents came together at KAUST to discuss this blue carbon resource. Covering just 1% of the sea floor, the vegetation was described by Carlos Duarte, Director of the Red Sea Research Center, as “the most intense carbon sink in the biosphere.”

Bridging land and sea

In the tropics and subtropics, coastal vegetation is dominated by mangroves. To Catherine Lovelock of the University of Queensland, Australia, these trees, able to survive extreme salinity and waterlogging, are “an evolutionary masterstroke worthy of decades of study.”

Like all forests, mangroves fix atmospheric carbon as organic matter and eventually, upon their death, into soil or even peat, basically a permanent carbon store. Research by KAUST scientists suggests that just 60 km2 of coastal vegetation stores enough carbon each year to offset the emissions of 350,000 cars. A single hectare of mangrove forest may hold the same as 17 ha of pristine Amazonian rainforest.

KAUST Professor of Bioscience Daniele Daffonchio wants to maximize this capacity by exploring how interactions between plants, animals and microbes can enhance carbon fixation in mangrove ecosystems. He highlights a process known as bioturbation: modification of the physical and geochemical structure of the soil by plant roots and burrowing animals, such as crabs of which there can be hundreds per square meter. Bioturbation has an important impact on the composition of the microbial community, which in turn alters the turnover of organic matter and thereby sequestration of carbon.

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