UNFCCC Workshop highlights links to sea grass and permafrost in balancing climate instability

I visited Bonn last week for a workshop hosted by The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The event was dedicated to exploring the “technical and scientific aspects of ecosystems of high- carbon reservoirs not covered by other agenda items under the Convention”.

During the two-day workshop current scientific knowledge of ecosystems of high-carbon reservoirs was mapped. Analysis included tracing the status, rate and losses of ecosystems as well how to manage them for reducing carbon emissions. Fascinating research into the wondrous diversity that composes our planet was shared, including the miracle of one of the oldest organisms identified in the world, the humble sea grass species, Posidonia oceanica.

Posidonia oceanica , more commonly known as ‘Neptune Grass’ or ‘Mediterranean Tapeweed’, is estimated to be between 80,000 and 200,000 years old. This figure was calculated by Australian researchers who measured its annual growth rate (15 kilometers and 6,000 metric tonnes) to pinpoint this impressive birthdate. It is mind blowing to note that this organism, which resides today in Mediterranean and Australian seas, has been in existence since the first records of human life began. What is even more remarkable is that this species plays a major role in resolving one of the most challenging issues facing humanity today; the ongoing changes in our climate.

Posidonia oceanica is one of several examples of so called “high- carbon reservoirs”. That is, ecosystems which store carbon instead of releasing it to the atmosphere and act as ‘carbon sinks’, helping to protecting us from the perils of unbalanced and powerful greenhouse gases. Other famously recognisable carbon reservoirs include the Amazon rainforest, tropical peat forests, mangroves, peat lands and permafrost. In the high altitudes close to the North and South poles, permafrost (frozen soil) locks vast amounts of carbon away from the atmosphere. Increasing global temperatures threaten vast amounts of permafrost lands causing them to melt and releasing carbon in the form of methane gas.

Permafrost is estimated to hold around 1, 672 Pg (petagrams) of carbon. This figure is almost double the amount of carbon currently recorded in our atmosphere today. The risks from release into the atmosphere are great and continued permafrost thaw could prove devastating for life on earth.

This risk was the red thread that appeared during the two days of presentations in Bonn. All of the high carbon reservoirs ecosystems are rapidly disappearing because of changes in land and water management. The central element for the balance of many of these ecosystems lies in the availability of water. A regular and stable influx of water means carbon can be stored safely in soil. However drainage and water logging incidences can cause soil to dry up, consequently speeding up the release of metric tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

In addition, our ancient sea grass friend, Posidonia oceanica, is diminishing at a rate of 17 % per year. With that loss, we lose not only the capacity to store carbon, but we also lose the ability to provide other important ‘ecosystem services’ to support biodiversity. This includes the balance of mangrove forests, spawning areas for economically important fish species as well as the regulation of water quality and quantity.

Despite this seemingly negative forecast, there is an upside. Andrey Sirin from the Russian Federation, eloquently expressed that we can directly impact and influence our carbon risks through the sustainable management of these important ecosystems. Our political and personal decisions will directly determine if these ecosystems maintain their roles as carbon sinks or if they shift to become dangerous carbon sources. This idea forms much of the impetus for the work that we do at SIWI. We aim to strengthen capacity and generate knowledge for better water management to enhance mitigation and the adaptation capacity of ecosystems to climate change.