Seagrass: A Powerful Climate Solution Just Below the Ocean’s Surface

SCIENCE & TECH: Seagrass: A Powerful Climate Solution Just Below the Ocean’s Surface

While the effects of climate change and growing human impacts have accelerated seagrass loss in the last few decades, it’s not a new story.

On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a strong storm in August 1933 that followed a wasting disease and overharvesting of bay scallops, wiped out what remained of once vast eelgrass meadows. (Eelgrass is a type of seagrass.) For decades, there was no eelgrass on the shore’s ocean side, said Bo Lusk, a scientist with the Nature Conservancy’s Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve, though some remained on the part of the coast lapped by the Chesapeake Bay.

Dr. Lusk, who grew up in the region, heard stories as a child of lush green carpets of eelgrass from his grandmother, who remembered that the shores teemed with life — until they didn’t. But then, in 1997, someone reported seeing some patches of eelgrass on the shore’s oceanside, likely from seeds that happened to drift south from Maryland and settled in a hospitable neighborhood in Virginia.

After several years of experiments, Robert J. Orth, a scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, devised a highly successful method of restoring seagrass, similar to methods used around the world: In the spring, scientists and hundreds of volunteers collect seeds, which they count and process over the summer and plant in the sediment in the fall.

Since 2003, when the restoration effort in the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve began, scientists and others have planted around 600 acres of seeds, and seagrass now covers 10,000 acres, according to Dr. Lusk. Later this year, the Nature Conservancy is hoping to sell the first validated blue carbon credits for seagrass, based on this restoration effort, said Jill Bieri, the director of the reserve.

However, the success of the Virginia project has been somewhat difficult to recreate around the world. “You can’t do this just anywhere,” Dr. Lusk said. “If the Nature Conservancy hadn’t started this land protection work 50 years ago, buying up parts of the coast to preserve it, the odds are we wouldn’t have the water quality we have now, and this wouldn’t have been so successful.”

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