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Carbon storage of headwater riparian zones in an agricultural landscape

Richard D Rheinhardt1*, Mark M Brinson1, Gregory F Meyer2 and Kevin H Miller234

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, East Carolina University, Mail Stop 551, Greenville, North Carolina, 27858, USA

2 Coastal Resources Management, East Carolina University, 379 Flanagan, Greenville, North Carolina, 27858, USA

3 North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, 1601 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, North Carolina, 27699, USA

4 Current address: Bureau of Land Management, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 669 South Highway 89A, Kanab, Utah, 84741, USA

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Carbon Balance and Management 2012, 7:4  doi:10.1186/1750-0680-7-4

Published: 14 February 2012



In agricultural regions, streamside forests have been reduced in age and extent, or removed entirely to maximize arable cropland. Restoring and reforesting such riparian zones to mature forest, particularly along headwater streams (which constitute 90% of stream network length) would both increase carbon storage and improve water quality. Age and management-related cover/condition classes of headwater stream networks can be used to rapidly inventory carbon storage and sequestration potential if carbon storage capacity of conditions classes and their relative distribution on the landscape are known.


Based on the distribution of riparian zone cover/condition classes in sampled headwater reaches, current and potential carbon storage was extrapolated to the remainder of the North Carolina Coastal Plain stream network. Carbon stored in headwater riparian reaches is only about 40% of its potential capacity, based on 242 MgC/ha stored in sampled mature riparian forest (forest > 50 y old). The carbon deficit along 57,700 km headwater Coastal Plain streams is equivalent to about 25TgC in 30-m-wide riparian buffer zones and 50 TgC in 60-m-wide buffer zones.


Estimating carbon storage in recognizable age-and cover-related condition classes provides a rapid way to better inventory current carbon storage, estimate storage capacity, and calculate the potential for additional storage. In light of the particular importance of buffer zones in headwater reaches in agricultural landscapes in ameliorating nutrient and sediment input to streams, encouraging the restoration of riparian zones to mature forest along headwater reaches worldwide has the potential to not only improve water quality, but also simultaneously reduce atmospheric CO2.

carbon storage capacity; condition; riparian buffer