Setting a reference for wetland carbon: the importance of accounting for hydrology, topography, and natural variability


Wetland soils are a key global sink for organic carbon (C) and a focal point for C management and accounting efforts. The ongoing push for wetland restoration presents an opportunity for climate mitigation, but C storage expectations are poorly defined due to a lack of reference information and an incomplete understanding of what drives natural variability among wetlands. We sought to address these shortcomings by (1) quantifying the range of variability in wetland soil organic C (SOC) stocks on a depressional landscape (Delmarva Peninsula, USA) and (2) investigating the role of hydrology and relative topography in explaining variability among wetlands. We found a high degree of variability within individual wetlands and among wetlands with similar vegetation and hydrogeomorphic characteristics. This suggests that uncertainty should be presented explicitly when inferring ecosystem processes from wetland types or land cover classes. Differences in hydrologic regimes, particularly the rate of water level recession, explained some of the variability among wetlands, but relationships between SOC stocks and some hydrologic metrics were eclipsed by factors associated with separate study sites. Relative topography accounted for a similar portion of SOC stock variability as hydrology, indicating that it could be an effective substitute in large-scale analyses. As wetlands worldwide are restored and focus increases on quantifying C benefits, the importance of appropriately defining and assessing reference systems is paramount. Our results highlight the current uncertainty in this process, but suggest that incorporating landscape heterogeneity and drivers of natural variability into reference information may improve how wetland restoration is implemented and evaluated.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Graham A. Stewart
Anna I. Kottkamp
Michael R. Williams
Environmental Research Letters