Essential to life on Earth
Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe. As we may remember from high school science, most carbon is stored in rocks, the rest can be found in the ocean, in plants, the atmosphere, and in fossil fuels. Under ideal situations, there is a natural, balanced exchange of carbon stored and carbon released into the environment: the “carbon cycle." You may agree, however, that there is little in life that is ideal and balanced.
Human activity has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere considerably. The ocean is able to take in about half of that amount and retains much more carbon than it releases. Much of this carbon is filtered and deposited into the seabed where it can be stored for thousands of years.
Amelie Jensen, graduate student at the University of the Virgin Islands in the Master of Science Marine & Environmental Science program has undertaken the task of investigating carbon storage in seagrass habitats around the Virgin Islands. Originally from Maine, Amelie has chosen to do her graduate research at UVI specifically to work under the guidance of Dr. Kristin Grimes, Research Assistant Professor of Watershed Ecology, & Director of the Virgin Islands Water Resources Research Institute.
The term “blue carbon” refers to the carbon that is captured and stored in coastal, “blue” habitats like, mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass meadows. These habitats are particularly effective at removing CO2 from the atmosphere and do so at a rate that is 5 to 9 times greater than tropical forests. Plants in these ecosystems, absorb the carbon into their leaves and roots, putting most of it belowground in their soils where it is not easily re-released into the atmosphere, especially when these soils are trapped underwater.
Questions arise when we inquire as to which species of seagrass capture and store carbon most efficiently. Does blade shape impact carbon capture? If so, how? At what rate is that carbon deposited and stored underground? These are the questions Amelie Jensen is asking. When we consider that native seagrass species are being displaced by the invasive Halophila stipulacea, right now in the USVI, these questions become particularly poignant. We just don’t know if or how this invasive species will affect marine carbon deposits in our Territory. Amelie’s research is the first-of-its kind for the US Virgin Islands.
Seagrasses play a vital role in coastal ecosystems. They form dense underwater fields, providing a vibrant environment for a variety of marine life, including critical habitat for turtles, juvenile fish, crabs and invertebrates. Amelie’s interest in marine carbon was fired by her past research in the salt marshes of Maine. Her interest was then further shaped by her studies abroad in Bonaire. Amelie notes that the fact her research largely takes place underwater adds an interesting and challenging dimension to this project, requiring her to be open to a new way of exploring and learning.
Amelie has received the necessary permits from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) and is excited to move forward with her research.