What role do salt marshes play in a changing climate?

Aug 7, 2017 | Healthy Habitats, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island

Katelyn Szura, graduate research scientist at the Narragansett Bay Reserve

I have always been interested in understanding how to strike a balance between coastal development and preserving natural areas. I knew that Nag Marsh—a pristine site located on Prudence Island and part of the Narragansett Bay Reserve—would be an ideal reference site for my work.

My research examines how chronic nitrogen loading from coastal development impacts how greenhouse gases are absorbed and released from salt marshes. Natural sinks for greenhouse gases, salt marshes capture and store large amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This ability can help mitigate climate change, but nitrogen flowing into the marsh can reverse this trend, altering marshes so that they become sources of greenhouse gases.

I look at what happens to marshes when they are exposed to different amounts of nitrogen from runoff and groundwater. Nag Marsh has little development so it was an excellent place to represent what happens when nitrogen input is low. To measure the greenhouse gases emanating from a marsh, I use a large analyzer that connects to a chamber on the marsh surface via tubing that allows for real time measurement of the gases. Pulling that 100-pound analyzer is quite the workout! And it can be a bit stressful when clouds are looming overhead as I work with electronic equipment that cannot get wet.

My favorite part of this research is that it contributes to a larger project called Bringing Wetlands to Market, which examines the feasibility of generating financial incentives to protect and restore salt marsh ecosystems through the creation of a carbon market for coastal wetlands. This would operate much like a carbon market that uses trees to offset carbon emissions through the purchase of credits.

Historically, coastal wetlands have been lost at rapid rates due to coastal development. This continues to be the case, so providing a financial incentive to protect and restore them would be a valuable option to preserve these important ecosystems.

What We Work ForHealthy HabitatsWhat role do salt marshes play in a changing climate?