Blue carbon brings new look at peatlands, community-driven science

It was a strange sight: 15 people stomping out into otherwise undisturbed peatlands on a recent Wednesday afternoon last month. Indeed, one passerby certainly thought it was odd.

“He asked me if we were there for a burial,” said Coowe Walker, manager of the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve. As Walker informed the curious onlooker, what was actually happening was a scientific demonstration. They were learning about the importance of peatlands for carbon storage.

As it turns out, peatlands hold a lot of carbon — thousands of years-worth. It has accumulated through organic matter that has been packed, compressed and deprived of oxygen in a boggy environment. Peatlands constitute half of all acreage in the Kenai Lowlands, with carbon depths ranging from 10 to 23 feet. In other words: an unbelievable volume of ancient dirt.

It doesn’t take much to find the carbon: just one (or two) strong individuals and a Russian peat corer. These were the tools on hand when workshop participants embarked on their burial-appearing journey into some peatlands near Anchor Point. The coring tool is simple to use, but the soil was deceptively finicky. It took a few attempts before the group found success and produced a beautiful 3-foot long soil core, revealing a tiny piece of local history in its rich, dense layers.

Researchers at the reserve are in the early stages of studying these peatlands and how they participate in the ecosystem. But the focus of this research isn’t scientific inquiry alone; it’s about how Alaska’s peatland resources can be leveraged to promote — and financially support — conservation efforts with important implications for the ecological, social, and economic future of the Kenai Peninsula.

To this end, during the week of July 16, the reserve hosted a gathering of local stakeholders and national experts to discuss incorporating Alaska peatlands into a “blue carbon” project.

Blue carbon is a term for bringing carbon resources in coastal environments into carbon markets. While “blue carbon” is a relatively new idea, the premise of “carbon markets” may be more familiar, and provides a useful starting point to explain how blue carbon works.

As the global climate crisis continues to worsen, companies may decide to invest in a carbon market to offset their carbon emissions, said Steve Crooks, a blue carbon expert who works for Silvestrum, a San Francisco–based consulting group that facilitates bringing these projects to market on an international scale.

This could look like an energy company in Texas funding a reforestation project in Brazil. The reforestation project is worth a particular number of “carbon credits” on the carbon market based on, among other things, the volume of carbon that the replanted forest will store.

Many organizations see carbon markets as an attractive way to help finance conservation and restoration activities, and to incentivize individuals and other organizations to participate in their efforts.

Blue carbon takes carbon markets and applies them to coastal soils, usually wetlands. The “blue” part of this term cleverly comes from the soils’ proximity to water. As Walker noted half-jokingly, “turquoise carbon” may be a better term for peatlands which are found a little further from open water.

Peatlands have been a long-ignored factor in climate policy and environmental economics.

“We’ve been thinking a lot about trees,” Crooks said, “But really a lot of carbon is stored in soil.”

In other words, there is an entire carbon market being ignored.

As Walker sees it, “This is an opportunity where Alaska can lead.”

Being at the forefront brings obstacles as well. The primary challenge for early-stage blue carbon projects is that, as Crooks put it, there is a “shortage of availability of proof of concept;” investors need evidence to back up their money.

This is where the science comes in. In order to actually bring Kenai peatlands into a blue carbon project, data is necessary. How much carbon do these peatlands store? And how much would be released if they were to be drained and developed?

“The science has to be solid,” Crooks emphasized. “The better your data, the better you can negotiate a price.”

Peatlands do not hold value on the carbon market simply because they exist; they hold value when the carbon they store is under threat of being released into the atmosphere. As last week’s gathering revealed, this threat is not so theoretical. Peat is an increasingly profitable industry, and plans for bringing peat extraction to Homer and surrounding areas are already in the works.

But we don’t have to wait around to see this process unfold. Plenty of peatland carbon is already being released through drainage and property development. As it stands, the borough’s land-use policy leaves peatlands essentially unregulated. In fact, it was only recently that the state stopped paying people to extract peat.

The blue carbon group hopes that this can be changed by redirecting land use to upland areas where soil is thinner and less carbon-rich while leaving the low-lying peatlands intact.

“It is about encouraging us to consider where we think about development happening within the landscape,” Walker explained.

As Marie McCarty, executive director of the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust put it, “This isn’t about being the ‘no’ people. It’s about telling them the good places to develop their property.”

For the Kenai Peninsula — and Alaska as a whole — the value of blue carbon is perhaps easiest to understand not through carbon emissions or market rates, but through salmon.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence showing that land — including peatlands — is just as impactful to salmon as water. Furthermore, as Smithsonian researcher Dennis Whigham said at the workshop, “it only takes a small amount of change on the land to cause a significant amount of change in the water.”

This is where peatlands can connect blue carbon to Alaska’s salmon-driven politics.

This doesn’t mean that local stakeholders are guaranteed to respond to a blue carbon project with enthusiasm. Alaska might have a salmon economy, but it also has a carbon economy. There is no guarantee that blue carbon will start raining cash on participating landowners. And some critique the use of market-based solutions all together, most famously articulated by economist Naomi Klein (no relation).

Branding is also a concern. Peatlands aren’t traditionally viewed as valuable compared to the majestic mountains just across the bay.

“You’ve got to communicate to people that peatlands are worth it,” Walker noted.

Communication can make or break a blue carbon project. This was something that James Rassman and Tonna-Marie Surgeon-Rogers repeatedly emphasized throughout the workshop. They flew into Homer from Cape Cod, where they started a blue carbon project at the Waquoit Bay Research Reserve six years ago.

Sitting around a conference table back at the reserve office, Surgeon-Rogers worked hard to drive this point home.

“You can have all the science and all the policy, and if the communication doesn’t work the public can bunk it and the policy will be reversed,” she said.

At this, she stood up and walked over to a white board where there was a drawing of lowlands and highlands to illustrate varying soil depths. She took a dry-erase marker and drew five stick figures into the picture as she insisted “there are people on the landscape. We have to be thinking about the people part at all times.”

“You are not just giving to the community,” Surgeon-Rogers continued. “You have to come from a place of understanding that they have something to give as well.”

As blue carbon moves forward in Homer, this is where the reserve plans to start.

Mira Klein is a freelance writer living in Homer. You can contact her at