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San Diego Coastal Marshes May Become Important Tools To Battle Climate Change

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San Diego researchers and environmentalists are taking a close look at a pocket habitat that may become an important tool as the climate changes.

Speaker 1: 00:00 I'm Mark Sauer with Maureen Kavanaugh and you're listening to midday edition on KPBS. San Diego, researchers and environmentalists are taking a close look at a pocket habitat that may become an important tool. As the climate changes, KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson says the regions salt marshes could be more than just a squishy terrain in out of the way places.

Speaker 2: 00:23 Do you want to take one of these handles

Speaker 3: 00:25 Matthew Costa steps, gingerly into a little pocket wetland near the Del Mar fairgrounds?

Speaker 2: 00:31 I don't think it's very likely, but watch out for bird nests. That's I don't think that they're nesting

Speaker 3: 00:35 Injured Ridgeway rails like hiding in the pickle weed that covers the soft moist ground between the train tracks and Camino Del Mar Costa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Scripps institution of oceanography.

Speaker 2: 00:48 I think this is a good spot. Was 15 meters. Last week we did five meters.

Speaker 3: 00:52 He's here to help unlock information about this salty Marsh information that can't be seen by the thousands of people who pass by each day.

Speaker 2: 01:01 We've got all these plants here underneath. There's a sort of a really muddy layer of sediment that has got it's home to a lot of organisms, too. There's lots of smells and other creatures living on the mud. Okay.

Speaker 3: 01:14 And crates his tools and pulls out a long silver tube with a wide fin. On one side, it looks a bit like a stubby, sor places it upright and leans in pushing it into the ground. Look, we're in a soft spot. And then he uses a slide hammer to help him sync that to even deeper once its completely seated in the soft wet dirt, Costa gently pulls the tube back out of the ground. A quick twist reveals the core sample, roughly seven centimeters across and 48 centimeters long.

Speaker 2: 01:49 We're looking down in the sediment. We're kind of looking back in time. So this sediment accumulated maybe hundreds of years ago and built up over time to where we have the plants living today,

Speaker 3: 02:01 Cost to pull samples, labels them. And in a lab, he hopes to find out how much carbon is stored. There

Speaker 2: 02:07 It's an effort to try and catalog the amount of blue carbon that's currently stored in our San Diego, coastal wetlands and ECOS.

Speaker 3: 02:16 Corey Puccini is the California conservation manager at wild coast. He says the plants and the salt Marsh grow fast, sucking in a lot of carbon dioxide. Some of that carbon gets trapped as the plants die and new ones grow over them. Unfortunately bikini says 90% of the region's coastal wetlands have been swallowed up by urbanization or dredged for recreation, but pockets persist.

Speaker 2: 02:41 Yeah. So as you see behind me, there's a lot of these opportunity parcels that you'd like to call them. These orphaned wetlands that are in and around a lot of the currently existing wetlands in San Diego County that have the potential to be restored, to enhance their capabilities, to draw that carbon out of the atmosphere

Speaker 3: 03:00 Cost us research will give conservationists a better idea of how efficient the salt Marsh terrain is at storing carbon

Speaker 4: 03:08 And seeing if we can ecologically enhance them to create this ecological uplift so that we can sequester more carbon using these natural solutions to draw carbon out of the atmosphere.

Speaker 3: 03:19 The net could help slow the pace of global warming because carbon in the atmosphere is responsible for a warmer

Speaker 4: 03:26 Climate. We're looking at areas like batter ketose lagoon up in Carlsbad, uh, the Kendall frost Marsh and mission Bay here at San Dieguito lagoon for Mosa SLU and a number of our other coastal wetlands here throughout the region.

Speaker 3: 03:39 Zach Clopper says this research will help them understand more about the ecosystems and habitats that are in the near shore area.

Speaker 4: 03:47 Make San Diego County a leader on natural climate solutions.

Speaker 3: 03:51 Hopper says blue carbon refers to habitats near the ocean that are particularly good at capturing and storing carbon

Speaker 4: 03:57 And the salt Marsh and sea grass here that we have San Diego County are these blue carbon ecosystems. They sequester and store more atmospheric carbon than any other ecosystem on the planet,

Speaker 3: 04:06 Which makes them both a hedge against global warming and a buffer against rising sea levels. That's why script's researcher. Matthew Costa is interested in measuring the impact. The habitat has already had. He hopes mapping out the terrain's past will help gauge the salt marshes ecological value in the future. Eric Anderson KPBS news.

Speaker 1: 04:30 In addition to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and switching to green technologies, what would it take to remove enough greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere to make a critical difference? That includes of course, boosting blue carbon habitats near the ocean professor Joseph Noel is lead researcher for coastal plant restoration with the SOC institutes harnessing plants initiative. And dr. Noel joins me now welcome to midday edition.

Speaker 5: 04:55 I'm very happy to be here. This is a topic of great importance to me and hopefully to lots of people

Speaker 1: 05:01 I'll start with the larger view. Why are plants so important in our battle mitigate the effects of climate?

Speaker 5: 05:06 So plants have evolved this wonderful ability to do a thing called photo synthesis. And what that means is that they use sunlight a little bit of water and they use carbon dioxide that they suck in through pores, in their leaves and other tissues. And they convert that carbon dioxide into sugars and all the carbon based molecules that we and plants depend on. Um, and so it's a, in some ways it's a free way of drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere and converting it into a myriad of molecules that are really important to the plant lifestyle. Um, and then of course humans and other animals, have you relied on plants as the basis of our food chain for quite some time and in the process? The other thing that they do is they end up releasing oxygen back into atmosphere. So they take one thing out that unfortunately has been rising over the last several decades due to the industrial revolution, which is carbon dioxide leading to warming of the atmosphere. Plants are very able to take that out of the atmosphere, converted into other molecules and in the process release oxygen. So they effectively are the natural base solution to carbon draw down for, uh, to mitigate climate change and plants

Speaker 1: 06:26 In coastal wetlands are even more important,

Speaker 5: 06:28 Right? Absolutely. So this is something near and dear to my heart. Um, it turns out that when plants take that carbon out of the atmosphere, um, when they die their roots and their leaves and other tissues, when they begin to decompose through the action of bacteria and fungi and other organisms in our soils, um, a significant portion of that carbon gets returned to the atmosphere. Some of it stays behind and that's what gives rise to very carbon rich soils, um, in agricultural lands. Well, it turns out that in, um, ecosystems that are wet, that is plants that are growing with wet feet, um, either, um, partially or even completely submerged in freshwater brackish water. And even in Marine systems, they actually make more molecules in their roots and then their leaves and stems to protect themselves against these harsh environments. So it turns out wetlands in particular, coastal wetlands are very harsh and plants deal with that by making molecules out of carbon that help them to survive.

Speaker 5: 07:38 And it also turns out that those molecules resist decomposition by the same bacteria and fungi and other organisms that in terrestrial soils leads to rapid decomposition. So we've learned over the last several decades that wetlands in particular, um, uh, brackish and Marine wetlands can store up to a hundred times more carbon in their sediments than an equivalent area of dry land. So they are an important, um, and critical ecosystem on the planet for combating climate change. Um, the other thing that unfortunately, they also are some of the most threatened ecosystems on the globe. And so as part of the harnessing plants initiative at salt, um, we have a component of it focused on wetlands and taking our ability to understand the genetic programs in plants and help to facilitate more rapid and more effective restoration of these really threatened wetland system.

Speaker 1: 08:41 Well, do you see hope for expanding or restoring wetlands on a significant enough scale going forward after all coastal areas are highly desirable for housing and recreation and it puts great pressure on using these areas?

Speaker 5: 08:54 I actually, um, a groundswell of support across the, you know, the, the political and, um, spectrum in terms of, of a desire to not only protect current wetlands, but begin to expand them, um, because they provide a lot of services and it depends on one's viewpoint, but they clean our waters. They obviously store quite a bit of carbon there. They're a major carbon deposits on earth. And in fact, the Tundra areas of our, of our, uh, North across the globe are actually ancient wetlands. And so those are tremendous stores of carbon, but they also obviously provide a lot of economic benefit for communities that surround them in terms of fishery development and, and, um, um, sustainability, et cetera. So I, I actually am very optimistic that there is, um, a trend now towards preserving and even expanding these, these areas.

Speaker 1: 09:56 How optimistic should we be that research on improving plants capabilities and scaling them on farms and wetlands worldwide can make a real difference in staving off the worst effects of climate change.

Speaker 5: 10:08 I am personally very optimistic and I, and I say that coming from, I would say a decade ago, being pessimistic, um, that's because one, there is bipartisan support for these kinds of initiatives because they not only focus on the climate, which some people, you know, it, it is a topic that unfortunately is debated, although it is real science, but even those that do not necessarily completely buy into the, to climate change or human based, um, uh, climate change, they see the economic benefits for these other aspects of the program. And so they buy in. So I've gone from a very pessimistic to a very optimistic attitude because the, these kinds of projects, salt, I think we are the seed then to use a pun we've planted the seed with other plant scientists, worldwide that to think about climate and to think about how plants draw down CO2. Um, so I think we together with other scientists worldwide can really make an impact because we're talking about, um, ecosystems and, um, farmed systems that cover a major portion of the, the land on land and coastal areas of the globe.

Speaker 1: 11:26 It was very encouraging to hear that optimism. I've been speaking with professor Joseph Noel of the Salk Institute in LA Jolla. Thanks very much. Thank you very much.

Speaker 6: 11:36 Um,

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.