NSF funded project examines whether wetlands can mitigate global warming

South Florida, home to Florida International University, has one of the world’s largest wetlands located in its backyard. As an important natural resource, the wetlands provide society with numerous environmental and economic benefits. However, the wetlands still hold the unknown answers to various environmental questions. Working within close proximity to this natural resource, CEE Assistant Professor of Ecological and Water Resources Engineering Omar I. Abdul-Aziz has decided to research the role wetlands play in regards to global warming.

Omar I Abdul Aziz

Wetlands play a critical role as a habitat for many unique species of plants, microorganisms and animals. As an important depositional system at the interface of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, wetlands are believed to play a pivotal role in soil-atmospheric exchanges of the major greenhouse gases (GHGs) of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). Wetlands can sequester carbon for the longer time-scales (e.g., hundreds to thousands of years), while emitting major GHGs into the atmosphere at the shorter time-scales (e.g., days, years). A delicate balance in climate, land uses (nutrient sources), hydrology, and ecological drivers determine the role of wetlands as the net source or sink of GHGs in the decadal time-scale, eventually determining whether wetlands mitigate or contribute to global warming.
In particular, tidal wetlands have the potential to play a key role in global warming mitigations. The carbon storage and sequestration capacity of coastal and marine wetlands is often referred to as “blue carbon,” a concept for coastal management that can potentially attract much private and public investment in coastal protection and restoration. However, an overarching science question is how the carbon storage and GHG flux rates of the coastal wetlands respond to the changes in climate (e.g., temperature, precipitation), sea level rise (SLR) and inundation (e.g., soil moisture, salinity), and land managements (e.g., nutrient loading). What are the different environmental regimes of wetland GHG emissions and carbon sequestration? Can we identify any biogeochemical similitudes for GHG emissions and sequestered carbon? Do the emissions and sequestrations scale in time and space? Would anthropogenic activities significantly deplete the carbon storage of wetland soil accumulated perhaps over millennia? Finding correct answers is particularly challenging under the changing climate, land uses, and sea levels.

The lack of understanding of wetland carbon sequestration and GHG fluxes hinders the development of appropriate models and engineering tools to predict (or project) potential future outcomes. Lack of prediction tools hamper the development of appropriate GHG offset protocols to set guidelines for monitoring and verification requirements for wetlands restoration and maintenance projects. Ultimately, the science and engineering gaps create critical barriers to the management of carbon stocks in coastal wetlands and their incorporation into a potential carbon market. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Abdul-Aziz has been conducting state-of-the-art research on wetland biogeochemical modeling and carbon sequestration at the FIU Ecological and Water Resources Engineering Lab to find correct answers to the crucial unknowns. His research findings and products (e.g., robust modeling tools) are expected to reshape the conventional practices and derive future strategies of wetland carbon management.

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