Stories in Texas

Can Blue Carbon Be a Climate Solution in Texas?

Why protecting and restoring wetlands can slow climate change and protect vulnerable coastlines.

Three women stand together near an expanse of wetlands and water.
Protecting Wetlands Wetlands may be a key to climate change solutions in Texas. © Kenny Braun

The Lone Star State may be better known for rocky mesas and arid grasslands, but Texas’ coastal wetlands could be an untapped solution to climate change. A wetland ecosystem can store 5 times as much carbon as a rainforest of the same size. Undisturbed, that carbon can remain locked in the soil for thousands of years. Meanwhile, marshes, mangroves and other wetland habitats protect coastal communities from sea level rise and damaging storms. All along Texas’ ~3,355 miles (~5,400 kilometers) of shoreline, coastal wetlands exist as both an asset and an opportunity.

Dense green mangrove and marsh habitat intertwine along languid blue coastal waters.
the power of wetlands Coastal wetlands filter our air and water, regulate our climate and serve as continuous carbon sinks, storing carbon in concentrations up to five times higher than rainforests. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Yet development pressure threatens the long-term health of those ecosystems—and the stability of the stored carbon. To address that threat, scientists with The Nature Conservancy in Texas are using innovative methods to map coastal wetlands and assess their potential for carbon storage. It’s one of a growing number of “blue carbon” projects that TNC is undertaking around the world. Establishing a market for blue carbon could support conservation and restoration efforts on public and private lands, while safeguarding biodiversity, slowing climate change and protecting coastal communities from the impacts of a warming world.

Coastal Wetlands Do It All

In the 1950s, Texas’ coastal wetlands covered some 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares)—a diverse mix of seagrass beds, salt and freshwater marshes and stands of shrubby mangroves. By the early 1990s, nearly two-thirds of that historic coverage had been lost to development, overgrazing and oil and gas exploration. Today, climate change is putting new pressure on coastal wetlands by increasing the rate of sea-level rise and changing rainfall patterns and the inflow of freshwater into the system.

Those vulnerable habitats provide multiple benefits for people and nature. Wetlands provide critical habitat for wildlife including birds such as the brown pelican and endangered whooping cranes. They also act as nurseries for commercially and recreationally important marine species, including red drum and brown shrimp.

Five brown pelicans perch on branches, nearly hidden amongst tall, lush, bright green wetland habitat.
Protecting Coastal Habitat TNC's Shamrock Island Preserve safeguards key wetland habitat for many types of birds, providing nesting sites, food and shelter for numerous resident and migratory species. © Rich Kostecke
Long, green blades of seagrass sway beneath lapping waves, creating a meadow on the shallow, sandy Gulf shore.
Nature's Nurseries Up to 90% of Texas' salt and freshwater fish species depend on wetlands, like this seagrass meadow in Redfish Bay, for food, spawning and nursery grounds. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Wetlands also act as a buffer between land and sea, protecting coastal communities from flooding and damaging storm surges. As climate change increases the sea level and alters weather patterns, wetland habitats are an important solution for boosting coastal resilience.

At the same time, these ecosystems help to protect against climate change by soaking up and storing carbon. TNC is assessing how much carbon Texas’ wetlands can store and under what conditions. The work is the first step toward the development of a blue carbon project along the Texas coast.

Saltmarsh shoots up from the Gulf coastline as the sun sets.
Capturing carbon Texas has lost more than half of its coastal wetlands in the past 200 years to habitat conversion, overgrazing and development. Restoring these carbon-trapping wetlands along our Texas coastline is crucial in combatting climate change. © R.J. HInkle

Exploring Blue Carbon in Texas

TNC is involved in various stages of blue carbon market projects in places such as Virginia (U.S.), the Bahamas, New Zealand and Australia. It’s also an intriguing possibility in Texas, which produces 13% of U.S. carbon emissions—the highest percentage in the country. As a first step in Texas, we’re mapping areas where wetlands currently exist, as well as where they might migrate in the future as a result of climate change and sea level rise.

We’re also tackling a range of demonstration projects in an effort to quantify the carbon benefits of different conservation and restoration initiatives. TNC already protects wetlands along the Texas coast, such as the Francine Cohn Preserve near Corpus Christi—home to species such as the piping plover and reddish egret. Such protected sites can serve as living laboratories where we can collect data and measure the carbon benefit of different restoration strategies, such as various erosion control methods, hydrological restoration or the use of dredged material to stabilize shorelines and restore wetlands.

A closeup of a reddish egret, with a long, pink neck fading into grey feathers, wading through blue waters and green marsh habitat.
Critical Nesting Grounds TNC's 300-acre Francine Cohn Preserve is one of the most important colonial waterbird nesting islands in the Western Gulf of Mexico. Birds nesting on the island rookery, like this reddish egret, are known to forage in the preserve's marsh habitats. © Rich Kostecke

TNC brings our deep knowledge of restoration to these efforts, but we’re not doing it alone. We’re collaborating with property owners, restoration practitioners, and land and resource managers to identify and secure the most promising sites for blue carbon. Establishing blue carbon in Texas could help landowners secure funds to protect and manage their wetland properties into the future.

We’re also teaming up with communities and local partners to raise awareness of the value of coastal wetlands for people and nature. These habitats support the growth and survival of hundreds of species, including scores of shorebirds and commercially important fish and shellfish species—such as blue crab, redfish and flounder—that are critical to the Gulf economy.

Nearly seventeen birds, varying in color from red and white to brown and grey, stand in tall marsh grass and wade through shallow coastal waters against a backdrop of bright green vegetation.
Supporting Biodiversity Texas’ coastal wetlands include a mix of freshwater and salt marsh that support nearly 400 bird species that reside, migrate or winter in the Gulf of Mexico. © Erika Nortemann/TNC
A closeup of two hands holding a small, tan crab by its claws.
Helping Coastal Economies Protecting Texas’ coastal wetlands can help ensure the survival of hundreds of species, including many of those that are commercially important to our Gulf fisheries. © Jerod Foster

With solid science and hard data in hand, we will develop an action plan to evaluate the potential for blue carbon initiatives on the Texas Gulf Coast. By finding innovative ways to protect our coastal wetlands, we can defend biodiversity, stabilize the climate and safeguard coastal communities from the increasing hazards of climate change.

Interested in Blue Carbon?

Contact Lauren Williams, Ph.D., at Lauren.Williams@TNC.ORG to learn more or support our blue carbon work in Texas.