On the Road to Carbon Markets in Alaska

Apr 2, 2024

When it comes to carbon storage, the peatlands of the lower Kenai Peninsula punch way above their weight. Trapped beneath the not quite liquid/not quite solid surface of these vast, spongy wetlands lies thousands of years of accumulated carbon. Keeping it there, however, will be a rocky road. 

“The Kenai Peninsula is an area of rapid development, which drives demand for gravel. Unfortunately, a good portion of this gravel is overlain by peat,” says Lindsey Flagstad, an ecologist with the Kachemak Bay Reserve and the Alaska Center for Conservation Science at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “When removed to access the underlying gravel, the peat is aerated and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is released. Our goal is to find incentives for landowners and communities to choose conservation over gravel extraction.”

In support of this, Reserve scientists and local partners applied a carbon finance methodology to calculate the amount of carbon local peatlands hold and assess their potential value on international carbon markets.

“Peatlands are the densest store of soil carbon on earth; how we manage even small areas can meaningfully impact greenhouse gas emissions;” says Steve Crooks, co-founder of Silvestrum Climate Associates and project partner. “We saw this as an opportunity not only to evaluate the potential for carbon finance to support conservation in this region, but to work with an organization that does the science, while actively engaging with communities and government agencies.”

The team partnered with a landowner who was interested in exploring options for alternative income streams to help support positive environmental outcomes for their peatland. The team mapped the property extent using aerial imagery and combined this with core sampling to determine the depth of the peat, its density, and carbon content. 

“This was a relatively straightforward process and a natural continuation of the Reserve’s work monitoring the region’s groundwater and exploring how coastal peatland streams support juvenile salmon,” says Flagstad. “Carbon storage is just one of many benefits these wetlands provide.”

This laid the groundwork for an investigation that they hope will serve as an model and pathway for communities interested in conserving peatlands and keeping the associated carbon in the ground. Will a carbon market take off in the region? It depends, according to Crooks.

“Going in we knew this would be a challenge. At the smaller scale, it’s difficult for carbon financing for conservation to compete with demand for aggregate. If one peatland is conserved, it will likely drive people to find a new source in another wetland resulting in no net benefit to peat soils. The question is, can we extract aggregate in a way that reduces impacts to peat soils?”

At a larger scale, bringing back beaver—which are experts in keeping river valleys wet—offers a new path to keeping carbon in the landscape. Projects to restore beavers and their habitat back could help revive drying wetlands, keep carbon in the ground, and potentially provide a path to connecting environmental recovery to carbon markets.

“Beavers are having a moment here, like everywhere,” laughs Flagstad. “We’ve begun a study looking at the impact of beavers, or conditions similar to those a beaver would create, on the groundwater that feeds and maintains wetlands, and we are hoping to explore how beavers impact the carbon budget of the landscape. Our conservation goal is to rewet 30,0000 acres of drying wetlands by 2035.”

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What We Work ForHealthy HabitatsOn the Road to Carbon Markets in Alaska