Searching for Blue Carbon in Abu Dhabi

Andrew Peresta helps a volunteer collect data from mangroves in Abu Dhabi.

Though the oil-rich Persian Gulf nations are known more for exporting carbon than storing it, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, home to the capital of the United Arab Emirates, wants to make its country the exception. In the winter of 2013, Pat Megonigal’s lab joined an international team to investigate how much carbon the nation's coastal ecosystems are able to bury.

Megonigal, with postdoctoral fellow Lisa Schile, engineer Gary Peresta and biological technician Andrew Peresta, spent three weeks trekking across Abu Dhabi’s mangroves and marshes to search for blue carbon–a generic term for carbon stored in marine ecosystems. Mangroves, marshes and seagrasses are adept at storing blue carbon. The Arabian peninsula is also home to vast microbial mats of cyanobacteria (famously but misleadingly termed "blue-green algae"). As they grow, the microbial mats soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Frequent flooding can give the mats a Jell-O-like consistency, making them awkward for the ecologists to walk on.

Video: Pat Megonigal dances on a microbial mat in Abu Dhabi

They joined spatial mapping experts from Cambridge University and a mangrove expert from Oregon State University, as well as about 20 volunteers from inside and outside Abu Dhabi. Most volunteers were students looking for in-country training. About two-thirds were women. They also received help from Abu Dhabi’s Environmental Agency, who could get them access to sites normally off-limits because they belonged to the royal family.

Abu Dhabi has been working to preserve its coastal ecosystems, especially mangroves, since the 1950s. As a major oil producer, growing awareness of the coasts’ ability to bury carbon gave them an added incentive. “They’re also interested in blue carbon ecosystems as part of their energy economy, and are intrigued by the idea that this can contribute to their efforts to be, at least as a country, carbon neutral,” says Megonigal. While Abu Dhabi has a long way to go towards carbon neutrality, the data Megonigal and Schile are analyzing are helping them create a roadmap.