Wetlands and the carbon cycle
The role of wetlands in capturing and storing carbon is often underestimated. Globally, wetlands are estimated to store over a third of the world’s terrestrial carbon; their destruction often results in major releases of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. However, their role in the carbon cycle isn’t simple or easy to generalise.
Carbon is the main building block of all life on earth. The carbon cycle refers to the myriad processes by which natural systems absorb and emit carbon. Plants and animals use carbon to build their cell structures. Carbon can also be deposited in soils. This is how carbon is absorbed or ‘sequestered’. Stored carbon can be released or emitted through natural respiration or when cell structures decompose, are burnt, or in the case of soil carbon, are disturbed.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the carbon cycle processes of emitting and sequestering were generally balanced with vast amounts of carbon being trapped over many millennia in highly condensed forms such as coal, oil and natural gas, also known as fossil fuels.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the carbon content of fossil fuels is being released or emitted as those fuels are burnt for generating energy and manufacturing. Also, the natural sequestering processes, especially those performed by plants, are being disrupted as land is cleared for human needs. These carbon emissions are a major driver of the greenhouse effect and human-induced climate change.
Wetlands play a dynamic and crucial role in absorbing atmospheric carbon. According to the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel, wetlands cover just 9% of the planet’s land surface, yet are estimated to store 35% of terrestrial carbon.
Figure 1: Queensland Wetlands Program 2012
Generally, undisturbed or intact wetlands tend to act as ‘carbon sinks’ due to their dense vegetation, algal activity and soils. They regulate processes such as anaerobic decomposition which generates methane and nitrous oxide. These gases respectively have 21 and 310 times more global warming impact than carbon dioxide over a 100 year timeframe. However, the capacity of intact wetlands to absorb and sequester carbon varies widely depending on the type of wetland, temperature and water availability. Research continues to better understand and identify the processes involved, and how these processes will be affected by climate changes.
As wetlands generally act as carbon sinks, their drainage and destruction can result in substantial carbon emissions. Taking water out of a wetland means oxygen can reach previously inundated organic matter. This results in large emissions of carbon dioxide as the organic matter oxidises. Thus, the degradation of Queensland’s wetlands, especially melaleuca wetlands and mangroves, contributes to overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Of particular concern is the drainage and disturbance of potential acid sulphate soils, many of which underlay wetlands. When exposed to air these soils release large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia’s wetlands are atypical due to the country’s dryness and climate variability. In many countries, peatlands play an important role in carbon storage, but these habitats are relatively rare in Australia. Coastal wetlands, especially salt marshes, mangroves and seagrass are considered to have the greatest potential as carbon sinks in Australia. It has been estimated that every hectare of mangrove wetland stores about 550t of carbon.
Restoring and protecting wetlands presents an important opportunity for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, there is significant work underway to develop methodologies for restoring and managing wetlands that will support the generation of carbon credits. In Australia, work is underway to develop a carbon accounting methodology for mangroves under the Commonwealth Government’s Carbon Farming Initiative.
Last updated: 22 March 2013
This page should be cited as:
Wetlands and the carbon cycle, WetlandInfo, Department of Environment and Science, Queensland, viewed 11 February 2019, .