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NC peat holds carbon market promise, but process complex

A wetlands-restoration project site in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge composed mainly of pocosin peat soils and draining to the northwest fork of the Alligator River.

Posted on February 22, 2023

Second in a series. Read Part 1.

PONSER — While thousands of acres in Hyde County have produced lucrative crops for centuries, the uncultivated peatland in the county with one of the lowest population densities in the state has the potential to offer a new kind of profitable produce: carbon credits.

Sequestration of carbon dioxide, or CO2, on agricultural and forest lands has become more urgent as atmospheric levels of the potent greenhouse gas continue to rise. And Hyde’s pocosin soil, a unique type of peat, can hold enormous amounts of carbon — peatlands are one of the largest carbon stores on Earth. That means that landowners could be paid for the amount of carbon that is locked into their soil.

According to a recent State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets Briefing by nonprofit Ecosystem Marketplace, the voluntary carbon market in 2022 topped $2 billion. But joining the carbon market is far more complex and arcane than buying stocks.

“There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity,” Eric Soderholm, the Albemarle-Pamlico restoration specialist with The Nature Conservancy, recently told Coastal Review. “There’s 250,000 acres of private peatland in North Carolina alone.”

Blacklands, as pocosin is broadly known in Hyde and neighboring northeastern North Carolina coastal counties, refer to rich, black, organic matter that has accumulated for millennia in swampy fields and forests. Starting in the 1700s, the land was ditched and drained for agriculture and timber, but now scientists are studying how to rewet and restore pocosin as a way to mitigate climate change.

Carolina Ranch, a privately owned, 15,000-acre site adjacent to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Hyde County, is currently working with several academic and engineering partners on restoration of 10,000 acres at the ranch with a goal of qualifying for carbon farming, which would be valued based on measurements of the level of CO2 that the soil holds.

Carbon credits, or offsets, represent the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere, or the amount of reduced emissions. Those credits can be sold or traded to buyers, such as large corporations, seeking to offset their carbon emissions.

Accessing the fairly new market, however, is a rigorous and expensive process that is nearly incomprehensible to most people, even those who understand the complexities of Wall Street or cryptocurrency trading.

Soderholm, who had done extensive hydraulic restoration work for The Nature Conservancy in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Hyde County, boiled down the following requirements:

  • A greenhouse gas project plan is submitted to the American Carbon Registry, which determines whether the proposal aligns with its standards and methodology.
  • Next, a third-party auditor examines the proposal.
  • Then, site data is analyzed.

“It’s sort of a step-by-step process,” he explained. “Some edits may have to be added before it’s validated.”

Pocosin and wetland restoration is part of The Nature Conservancy’s climate change work in the Albemarle peninsula, including reducing saltwater intrusion and mitigating flood and stormwater impacts.

Of the 110,106 acres in the Pocosin Lakes refuge, which spans land in Washington, Hyde and Tyrrell counties, about 101,600 acres are pocosin, an Algonquin term meaning “swamp on a hill.” With about 44,000 acres of the pocosin ditched and drained, over time the peat had become dried. The refuge’s natural water system is dependent on rainfall, and periods of drought had severely degraded habitat and made the land susceptible to wildfires.

Working with The Nature Conservancy and other partners, refuge officials have restored more than 37,000 acres of pocosin, making it one of the largest peat wetland restoration projects in the country, according to the refuge’s website. Restoration involved rewetting the pocosin by raising and maintaining water levels using risers and other structures in the canals to allow water to be absorbed.

“Healthy pocosins are foundational to healthy ecological and human communities,” the website explained. “The restoration is benefiting wildlife and people by maintaining high quality wetland habitat. When pocosins function as nature intended, seasonal water level fluctuations moisten the soils, protecting against catastrophic fire, easing the impacts of storm flows, and repelling the ever increasing threat of salt water intrusion in surrounding lands.”

Pocosin, described as “nutrient-poor, freshwater evergreen shrub bogs,” had developed over the last 10,000 years and had once covered nearly 1 million hectares on the state’s coastal plain, according to Curtis J. Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center. By 1980, after years of drainage and peat mining, the natural wetlands were reduced to 281,000 acres.

“This development has resulted in a shift of hydrologic output from evapotranspiration to runoff,” he wrote in a research paper.   “… and a reduction in habitat for rare and endangered biota, while dramatically increasing the economic value of these lands.”

In a document about the conservancy’s work, Soderholm said the restoration of the Clayton Blocks area of Pocosin Lakes served as a valuable model. Located south of Phelps Lake, bordering private land and a shared drainage canal, the project involved creating a new canal and a separation berm to control floodwaters. Water-control structures were installed that allow the refuge to manage wetland hydrology and prevent wildfires. The conservancy also worked to monitor the project’s greenhouse gas flux, which is the amount of carbon exchanged and is typically measured in gigatons per year, in carbon pools such as atmosphere, living plants or roots, land and the ocean.

TerraCarbon, an advisory firm that helps develop carbon offset projects to fund natural climate solutions, worked with The Nature Conservancy at Pocosin Lakes to develop the first peatland carbon accounting methodology that is applicable to any peat-restoration project in the Southeast coastal plain.

In its healthy state, peat that is inundated with water lacks oxygen, so microbial activity is limited. But when peatlands are drained, they’re exposed to air, the microbes kick in, consumes the peat, which is then emitted as carbon dioxide. Over the years, the drained peatlands have created an ongoing emission of CO2.

TerraCarbon’s technical director David Shoch said that the methodology he developed serves as a standardized accounting framework for tracking greenhouse gas emission benefits from restoring coastal wetlands.

“These projects are all about stopping that ongoing mission by raising water tables to where they had historically been before under natural conditions,” he told Coastal Review. “And so the water table should be much closer to the surface.”

By raising the water levels, as was done at Pocosin Lakes and is underway at Carolina Ranch, he said, the natural hydrology can be restored and emission of CO2 into the atmosphere can be stopped.

Prior to TerraCarbon, Shoch had worked for The Nature Conservancy and Winrock International.

Roughly estimated, Shoch said that raising the water tables at Pocosin Lakes would prevent about 5 to 6 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per acre, per year. A metric ton equals 1,000 kilograms or about 2,205 pounds.

But the actual amount, he said, is dependent on determining the level of emissions from the pre-drained state and those water tables and comparing the numbers to reduction of emissions achieved by raising water tables and restoring the natural hydrology. TerraCarbon has leveraged research done by East Carolina University, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Duke University wetlands lab.

Sonderholm, with The Nature Conservancy, said that the nonprofit is interested in working with private landowners not only for habitat- and ecosystem-restoration purposes but also to help them reach goals in mutually beneficial climate projects.

Private property owners own about 40% of U.S. forestland, which includes forested pocosin in northeastern North Carolina, but the process of enrolling in the carbon market has been cost-prohibitive, requiring much time and expertise.

The Family Forest Carbon Program, developed by The Nature Conservancy and the American Forest Foundation, partners with family and individual owners to manage their forests in ways that increase their health while also fostering their ability to sequester and store carbon. The program then provides income to owners by selling verified carbon credits to companies seeking to confront climate change.

“We’re doing the work on the front end, laying out these practices … (with) models and quantifications specific to that region,” Aimee Tomcho, senior forestry manager for the Southern region of the American Forest Foundation, or AFF, explained for Coastal Review.

Although the foundation has focused on hardwood forests adjacent to peatland, she said, it has not yet delved into conservation of pocosin and has limited engagement in the region.

“I do anticipate that AFF will be community-based in the South, so that may happen organically.” she said, adding that the foundation knows how to reach out to landowners of small acreage.

“I’m really excited about the research about pocosin.” she added.

Erin Swails, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Forestry Research, said that until recently she had worked with Shoch at TerraCarbon on the technical carbon aspects of developing a documentation and monitoring system for qualifying the climate benefits of the restoration project and applying David’s methodology to that project.

Swails said she plans to publish new research that will provide more accurate emissions data generated by projects such as those at Pocosin Lakes.

“The main idea is that to get a relationship between the CO2 emissions from peat and easily measurable parameters in the field,” she told Coastal Review.

In other words, more data from different studies covering a broader range of environmental and climate conditions was needed, she said, to fill knowledge gaps and “to get a sufficiently robust relationship to apply the methodology.”

Even for those who may have taken some college-level science classes, it’s difficult to comprehend the concepts involved in measuring carbon levels in soil. As Swails explained it, in addition to figuring out carbon levels in pocosin before and after rewetting, it involves measuring the contribution of living plants, root respiration and total CO2 flux.

Scientists also have to create cushions in carbon offset calculations to account for carbon released if there is a fire. And if there’s prolonged flooding, that won’t affect the carbon releases, but it could create methane emissions, another greenhouse gas.

“I think something else that is important is restoring the vegetation of these ecosystems because it’s one thing to raise the water table level to stop the microbial decomposition of the peat, but to build the (land), to increase the carbon storage of peat, you need carbon inputs from vegetation,” Swails said. “So besides the many environmental benefits that restoring native vegetation would bring one of them is to help restore the natural function of the peat by promoting carbon storage.”

If pocosin land in northeastern North Carolina finds its place in the burgeoning carbon market, much of it will depend on the integrity of the science that has been done at Pocosin Lakes and Carolina Ranch.

The largely unregulated voluntary carbon market can play an important role in finding funds for sequestration projects and helping the world achieve net zero carbon goals, according to a Nov. 10, 2022, blog on the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund website.

“But the voluntary carbon market can only thrive if it is backed by standards that ensure high integrity of emissions reductions,” according to the blog. “That’s because companies will only invest in forest carbon credits to meet their net zero goals if they’re confident in the credit’s integrity.

“They don’t want to risk greenwashing.”


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