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Study Shows Coastal Wetlands Aid in Carbon Sequestration

data collection in marsh

PNNL scientist, Amy Borde collects data in a marsh on the Columbia River estuary.

Photo: Heida Diefenderfer

Sea-level rise impacts will likely decrease ecosystem carbon stocks

August 13, 2020
August 13, 2020

Tidal marshes, seagrass beds, and tidal forests are exceptional at absorbing and storing carbon. They are referred to as total ecosystem carbon stocks, yet little data exists quantifying how much carbon is absorbed and stored by tidal wetlands in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Knowing this information is valuable, particularly in the context of sea level rise and with the associated need for Earth system modeling to predict changes at the coast.

The Science

Researchers found that the average total ecosystem carbon stock in the PNW is higher than in other areas of the U.S. and other parts of the world. Marsh carbon stocks, in particular, are twice the global average. Researchers found progressive increases in total ecosystem carbon stocks along the elevation gradient of coastal wetland types common in the PNW: seagrass, low marshes, high marshes, and tidal forests. Total carbon also increased along the salinity gradient, with more carbon occurring in lower salinity areas.

Additionally, this research showed that common methods used to estimate soil carbon actually underestimate soil carbon stocks in coastal wetlands. Soil carbon storage below the depth of 100 centimeters proved to be an important carbon pool in PNW tidal wetlands.

The Impact

The results suggest that long-term sea-level rise impacts, such as tidal inundation and increased soil salinity, will likely decrease ecosystem carbon stocks. This is a concern if wetlands can’t migrate with increased sea level due to being bound by topography and human development.  


This research arose from the Pacific Northwest Blue Carbon Working Group, of which Amy Borde and Heida Diefenderfer of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Coastal Sciences Division are members. The team studied 28 tidal ecosystems across the PNW coast, from Humboldt Bay, California, to Padilla Bay, Washington. They sampled common coastal wetland types that occur along broad gradients of elevation, salinity, and tidal influences, collecting the data necessary to calculate total carbon stocks in both above ground biomass and the soil profile.

In three years of study, the researchers found that most carbon is in the wetland soils not aboveground, and much of it is deeper than one meter—a typical lower limit of sampling. Total ecosystem carbon stocks progressively increased along the terrestrial-aquatic gradient of coastal wetland ecosystems common in the temperate zone including seagrass, low marshes, high marshes, and tidal forests. The findings were reported in “Total Ecosystem Carbon Stocks at the Marine-Terrestrial Interface: Blue Carbon of the Pacific Northwest Coast, USA,” published in the August 2020 online edition of Global Change Biology (DOI: 10.1111/gcb.15248).

Research Team: PNNL’s Amy Borde and Heida Diefenderfer, along with J. Boone Kauffman, Leila Giovanonni, James Kelly, Nicholas Dunstan, and Christopher Janousek (Oregon State University); Craig Cornu and Laura Brophy (Institute for Applied Ecology/Estuary Technical Group); and Jude Apple (Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve).


The grant award was administered by the Institute of Applied Ecology, and other partners included Oregon State University and the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. This research was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through a cooperative agreement with the University of Michigan. 


Kauffman, J Boone, Leila Giovanonni, James Kelly, Nicholas Dunstan, Amy Borde, Heida Diefenderfer, Craig Cornu, Christopher Janousek, Jude Apple, and Laura Brophy. “Total Ecosystem Carbon Stocks at the Marine‐terrestrial Interface: Blue Carbon of the Pacific Northwest Coast, United States.” Global change biology, no. 0 (August 11, 2020). DOI: 10.1111/GCB.15248

August 11, 2020
APRIL 21, 2020
Web Feature

Beneath It All

At PNNL, subsurface science inhabits two separate but interlocking worlds. One looks at basic science, the other at applied science and engineering. Both are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

When a pinch is problematic: Detecting pertechnetate in groundwater


A PNNL researcher holds a redox sensor in the project’s lab in the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory.  Andrea Starr | PNNL

PNNL develops an effective tool for measuring a tricky contaminant

March 30, 2020
March 30, 2020

Imagine trying to detect and measure a pinch of salt in an Olympic-size swimming pool. Now pretend the tools you are using don’t work well. Some can detect the salt but can’t tell you how much is in there, and others confuse salt with chlorine.

Now swap the swimming pool for a source of groundwater and the salt for a radioactive contaminant called pertechnetate.

ACS Journal Pertechnetate
The future of groundwater contamination measurement? The large thiol claws of PNNL’s subsurface probe with custom gold tips detect and measure pertechnetate in aqueous environments. Cover illustration by Rose Perry, PNNL

Pertechnetate is a byproduct of nuclear waste. If it ends up where it is not supposed to be—like, in groundwater—it could impact human health, which is why researchers and regulators keep a close lookout for it. The environmental safety limits for pertechnetate are roughly equivalent to a pinch of salt in an Olympic pool. And there are only a few technologies to measure it, each with limitations.

PNNL research tackles this challenge with new technology to detect and accurately measure pertechnetate at super low levels in groundwater. This research, “Redox-Based Electrochemical Affinity Sensor for Detection of Aqueous Pertechnetate Anion,” was the cover article for the March 2020 edition of ACS Sensors (DOI: 10.1021/acssensors.9b01531). 

Why it matters: The Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard for pertechnetate is 0.000000052 grams per liter (that’s roughly 1/6000th the weight of a single poppy seed). While techniques exist for detection of pertechnetate in the environment, many have their drawbacks. PNNL’s technology can accurately measure low levels of pertechnetate in groundwater. Additionally, this proof of concept has the potential to be applied to other target contaminants simultaneously, increasing efficiency for environmental sensing.

Summary: The new technology acts like a coin counter, but at a microscopic level. It sorts one type of chemical from another, providing the total amount of a target chemical at the end. The tool uses custom probes with a gold electrode that only allows the target groundwater contaminants to stick while the other chemicals bounce off.

Sulfur likes to bind to gold and it also tends to react with pertechnetate, making sulfur-containing compounds an ideal intermediate in tool development. The sulfur sticks to the gold probe, then reacts with the pertechnetate, which forms a precipitate. The precipitate inhibits an electric current pulsing through the probe, providing an inverse measurement of pertechnetate concentration.

What’s Next: While this work was specifically focused on pertechnetate, there is potential to expand the technology to simultaneous multiple targets with the goal of increasing the efficiency of environmental measurements.

Sponsors: This research was funded by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program at PNNL and by the Deep Vadose Zone program under the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Environmental Management. Part of this research was performed at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a national user facility at PNNL managed by the DOE Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

PNNL Research Team: Sayandev Chatterjee, Meghan S. Fujimoto, Yingge Du, Gabriel B. Hall, Nabajit Lahiri, Eric D. Walter, Libor Kovarik. ACS Sensors cover illustration by Rose Perry, PNNL.


March 27, 2020
MARCH 12, 2020
Web Feature

Tracking Toxics in the Salish Sea

With the help of a diagnostic tool called the Salish Sea Model, researchers found that toxic contaminant hotspots in the Puget Sound are tied to localized lack of water circulation and cumulative effects from multiple sources.
FEBRUARY 6, 2019
Web Feature

Imaging Goes Underground at the Hanford site

"It's sort of like using infrared goggles to see heat signatures in the dark, except this is underground." PNNL and CHPRC implemented a state-of-the-art approach to monitor the process of remediating residual uranium at Hanford's 300 Area.
JUNE 13, 2018
News Release

Seawater Yields First Grams of Yellowcake

For the first time, researchers have created a gram of yellowcake — a powdered form of uranium used to produce fuel for nuclear power production — using modified acrylic fibers to extract it from seawater.