Stories in North Carolina

Saving North Carolina's Peatlands

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A clear blue sky sits above a flooded wetland area. Grass dots the background and some of the foreground of the marsh.

The Nature Conservancy is restoring the hydrology of peat soils in coastal North Carolina to combat climate change.

Wildfires mar peatland habitat When peatlands are degraded, wildfires further devastate the landscape. At the Great Dismal Swamp, wildfire events in 2008 and 2011 have scarred the refuge. © Sydney Bezanson/TNC

sydney bezanson
Sydney Bezanson Creative Content Manager

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The Atlantic coastal plain along the eastern United States holds powerful potential in its peatlands. While these unique wetlands store carbon, preventing it from entering the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, they also capture it. Restoring peatlands are proving to be a critical natural climate solution.

What are peatlands?

Peatlands are a type of wetland whose soils contain a high proportion of partially decayed organic matter, and they retain an incredible amount of carbon. Peatlands cover just 3% of the earth's surface but store more than twice the carbon as all the world's forests. They span tropical rainforests, permafrost regions and coastal areas.

Human hands hold a clump of peat soil. There is some visible organic matter in the soil.
Hydrated peat soils Peat contains primarily carbon, which ignite easily when dried. However, soils following restoration are markedly moist, which preserves their high organic matter levels. © Sydney Bezanson/TNC

Due to its rich carbon content, peat is highly flammable when dried. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 113,000-acre Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is one of the sites for peatland restoration work. The refuge is a pocosin peatland. Pocosin peatlands are a type of peatland characterized by deep, acidic and sandy soils. They are found across the coastal plain in the southern United States. Centuries of ditching and draining have resulted in severely degraded peatlands. In both 2008 and 2011, the refuge experienced catastrophic wildfires that scorched the landscape. Today, the scar remains. 

Peatland Restoration Tool

The American Carbon Registry (ACR) has approved  a carbon offset methodology for the quantification, monitoring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions from the restoration of previously drained pocosin wetlands. Version 1.0 can be accessed here.

While burning peat releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, it also emits carbon constantly under normal circumstances through a process called volatilization. Restoring peat results in a carbon sink. TNC has developed a one-of-a-kind carbon methodology with TerraCarbon to quantify the emission reductions gained from restoring coastal peatlands in the southeastern United States. This tool is designed to help landowners generate and sell voluntary carbon credits via the American Carbon Registry that can help cover the upfront costs if they choose to rewet their own drained peatlands.

Eric Soderholm stands on a wooden structure above a creek. A forested area sits in the background.
Eric Soderholm Soderholm stands atop a water control structure on Countyline Road within Great Dismal Swamp Refuge. © Sydney Bezanson/TNC

Eric Soderholm leads TNC's work to restore peatlands in North Carolina, partnering with state and federal agencies to restore degraded peat soils by installing water control structures and other water management infrastructure throughout the refuge.

On his days at Great Dismal, Soderholm treks through the swamp to document ditch flow rates and water levels across the project site over time. This monitoring helps refuge staff understand hydrologic conditions and informs any need to adjust water control structure settings so that the project can maximize the habitat and flood resilience enhancements it provides.

We are trying to mimic the natural hydrology of an intact peatland. These water control structures can be adjusted to reverse the impacts of drainage, allowing more water to be retained in the swamp.

Wetland Restoration Specialist

Fighting Climate Change with Peatland Restoration

When peat soils are re-saturated with water, they are much less flammable and create conditions for more diverse and resilient forest communities to thrive. Since peat soils also have the great potential to sequester carbon, hydrologic restoration at peatlands sites is a natural climate solution to climate change.

Eric Soderholm places peat probe into forest floor
Sampling Soderholm takes a soil sample with an auger to evaluate the water saturation of the peat. © Sydney Bezanson/TNC
Monitoring water levels
Monitoring water levels Soderholm measures water levels across a network of monitoring wells at the refuge to inform adaptive water management. © Sydney Bezanson/TNC

Peatland Restoration Promotes Healthy Forests and Communities

Once the hydrology is restored, management interventions can be explored to help repopulate the site with peatland specialists, particularly Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides). Cedar-dominated forests, which are now a globally threatened community, thrive in peaty, moist soil of swamps and bogs. Peatlands also support a variety of wildlife. Many neotropical songbirds, such as the prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea), seek refuge in spring. In the summer, black bears (Ursus americanus) forage and enjoy the extra sun.

Human communities, too, benefit from the restored hydrology of peatlands. By fixing the drainage problem at these sites, TNC's work is helping people downstream reduce their flood risk.

Flora and Fauna of Peatland Forests

In addition to sequestering carbon, peatlands are home to a wide variety of plant and animal species.

A small black bear walks towards viewer in grassy road.
An Atlantic White Cedar tree stands in a lush forest.
A yellow bird forages against a green background.
One large pitcher plant stands above smaller plants on a grassy forest floor.

Looking Ahead to Expand Peatland Restoration

TNC has conducted peatland restoration at sites across the coastal plain, including at Pocosin Lakes and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuges. We are now moving south in North Carolina to the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission's Angola Bay Game Land. These initial projects lay the groundwork for massive restoration to replicate beyond the state's borders into the greater US Southeast.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • Why are peatlands being degraded or destroyed?

    Europeans initially sought to drain peatlands along the coastal plain for human settlement. However, timber harvest later became a more profitable opportunity for enterprise. These wetlands as a result were ditched and drained for road construction and resource extraction. In addition, developmental pressures continue to loom for these special natural areas.

  • Why does peat burn?

    Peat is highly flammable when dried. When wildfires occur in degraded, dry areas, they have devastating impacts on the land, as they can continue to smolder for long periods of time. Historically, this has also made them a source of fuel for people.

  • What happens when peat burns?

    Peat emits huge quanities of carbon dioxide when burned. Through carbon sequestration, 10 acres of natural, undrained pocosin peatland can remove 5.3 passenger vehicles' emissions in a year. In contrast, 10 acres of drained peatland can add 21.5 passenger vehicles' emissions.

  • How can landowners get involved?

    Landowners can access the peatland restoration metholodgy through the American Carbon Registry. 

Save Precious Peatlands

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sydney bezanson
Sydney Bezanson is a content writer and designer for The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina.