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- [Narrator] Carbon is at the heart of all life on earth.
- There's a bird calling right now, okay?
That bird, just like us and every other creature on this planet, is a carbon-based life form.
- [Narrator] Although it's the building block, of every living organism excess carbon in our atmosphere, has the potential to dramatically alter life on our planet.
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, form a warming blanket around the planet.
Without this blanket, the earth would be too cold, for us to live on.
But within the last century, the blanket has been getting heavier, as the concentration of greenhouse gases, in the atmosphere has spiked.
- Carbon dioxide equivalence or greenhouse gases, are the things that are causing our climate, to become more unstable.
Really, all of this has happened, since we moved into the industrial age.
- [Narrator] There's no one solution to slowing or reversing our changing climate, but nature-based solutions are taking a front seat, in North Carolina and across the globe, as a way to pull excess carbon dioxide, out of the air and store it underground.
- Nature-based solutions are having a moment.
We can actually do something, that benefits local communities, benefits wildlife, provides for recreation.
It also stewards the land in a way, that's addressing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.
- It's an easy solution.
We're not trying to, you know, build some machines, that are gonna live and spin around in the ocean right?
This is already here.
[calming music] - We are in Eastern North Carolina, in the Albemarle-Pamlico Watershed.
We're passing by the farmland to the south and then right up here to the east of here, is the National Wildlife Refuge starting up.
Pocosin Lakes itself is 110,000 acres of primarily wetlands.
You will hear folks refer to peatlands elsewhere, but Pocosin is specific to this area, because of the Native Americans that called them that.
- You might think from this perspective, that we're just looking at an absolutely flat landscape, but that's really not the case.
The groundwater level is actually below the soil surface, which is a normal thing, that's saturating that peat underground, but it's not ponding and pooling.
[ruffling sounds] - This is an area we've been working for over 10 years.
This is probably some of the deeper peat here.
We could have up to eight to 10 feet of peat.
Peat is really just decayed, partially decayed plant material.
So this is the leaf litter.
This is what makes the peat.
It doesn't decay very fast.
This is very unpalatable, for the microbes it's very difficult to break down, the difference between having a candy bar or trying to eat a piece of wood.
People don't realize there's more carbon, stored in the peatlans of the world, than there are all the forests.
If you look at a typical forest soil, it's 1 or 2%.
Peat is basically 80 to 90% organic matter.
That's why they're so great at storing carbon.
To get to this goal of zero carbon emissions, we have to keep reducing this amount, of carbon dioxide release.
If you just let these areas live follow and decompose, it can equal up to 2.5% of our annual goal, of reducing carbon emissions for the entire United States.
It's an enormous amount.
If only 25% of the drained peatlands in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia caught on fire, in one year, it could equal to 18%, of our annual US goal of carbon dioxide reduction.
So we're trying to keep as much carbon, in the system as we can and wetlands are a natural sequesterer of carbon.
- So this is a instrument that basically you put in the hole, oh, that's good, and you turn it 180 degrees and this paddle basically cuts a piece of peat and we pull it back out of the hole lift with the knees.
So there, yeah.
- [Curtis] That's a beautiful core that.
- [Neal] Yeah.
- That core probably represents the base, probably about 2000 to 3000 years in age.
[calming music] - [Sara] These landscapes started to change in the 60s and 70s when there was ditching and draining, primarily with the hopes of them being converted, to agricultural fields.
I think one of the things, that's unique about these habitats, is they're fire dependent.
Most people think of forest fires and wildfires, starting in the canopy or the above ground layer, but peatlands, actually, the soil itself is combustible.
- [Eric] What you have to think about, is that a natural state that underlying soil is going to be, at least partially saturated, when these soils are you know, very, very dry.
So during natural drought periods or in a ditch situation, it makes them very, very vulnerable to catching on fire.
In 2008, for example there was a wildfire, that lasted for several months.
- [Curtis] We burned off 9.9 teragrams of carbon.
That's the amount of carbon dioxide, released by 2.5 million cars driving 12,000 miles, in a year in one fire.
- The fire will move underground and we've seen, you know, repeated fires out here that will burn away feet of soil, four to five feet in the most intensely burned area.
- A thousand years of accumulation, could go up and smoke in literally an hour.
- If it's drained.
- If we put water back in the soil, we provide for the habitat, but we're also making the landscape more resilient, to the effects of catastrophic wildfire.
The most altered part of the refuge, has a ditch network every mile by half mile.
And then even within that, every 320 feet there are V ditches.
It was purchased by the conservation fund and donated to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990.
So one of the first things that managers at that time did, was to essentially develop the plan, for how to fix the drainage network on the landscape.
- So the main way that we achieve hydrologic restoration or rewetting, these Pocosin wetlands, is by installing flashboard riser water control structures.
And essentially it's a culvert pipe and you're able to control what the water level is, in the ditch that's just uphill of that structure.
So we stage these structures gradually up the slope, of a Pocosin dome or the hill of this wetland.
We're rewetting with rainwater.
We're rewetting these soils from below.
From my perspective, the most important kind of next steps, is doing this on private land.
If a private landowner were to own an area, that was previously ditched and drained Pocosin wetland, they could use the same sort of infrastructure, that is being used at project sites, all across the coastal plain here in North Carolina, rewet their lands and then generate carbon credits, that could be sold on the voluntary carbon market.
- It's a market-based approach to restorations.
These measurement methodologies and approaches are just a way, for anyone who invests in that market, to know that it was carbon, that actually is moving the needle, to address the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, in a meaningful way.
[calming music] - Hello, hello, hello.
You all are eating the tender grass.
You don't like the grass over there?
As a livestock grower, you are a grass grower.
[calming music] We're at Blackwell's Farm, located here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
I'm a co-owner with my brother Seth Blackwell.
We were born and raised here on the farm.
We spent time in corporate America, the both of us and we returned to the family farm.
We are multi-generational farmers, from a multi-generational farming family.
We basically raised beef cattle and seasonal specialty crops.
We're gonna give 'em some apples today.
We're gonna give 'em a treat.
How do I feel about my cows?
I love my cows.
My cows are my friends, okay?
[cheerful music] It's a totally different picture.
It's a different scenario.
It's a different process when it comes to farming.
It used to be we would get days of rain.
Now it's kinda like a downpour.
It comes all within a limited time period.
We didn't experience those extremes.
We did have drought times, you know, growing up where things, had to be watered through irrigation.
But today it's an ongoing pattern.
- Climate change is gonna affect growers, in very different ways depending on where you are, in the United States.
Here in North Carolina, we have some predictions on what's gonna happen.
So we're gonna see maybe annually, the same amount of rainfall, but it'll be distributed very differently.
- It's also predicted that droughts are going to be, much more common much, more intense and last for longer duration.
When precipitation does happen, you wanna ensure that it gets into the ground.
- [Beverly] We were always taught you had to turn the land, you need to turn it 18 inches or so, you need to allow it to rest for the winter.
I looked at the fields of where we were, with our crops that we will plant and I said in order for this to work, with extreme weather changes and the patterns that we are now confronted with, we're gonna have to go, with a no-till to limited till process.
We need to do less disturbance to the land.
- Tillage is a way of cultivating the soil or preparing it for a seed bed.
- [Alex] There are advantages of tilling, but the trade-off is you've broken up the soil, all the aggregates, all the soil structure is damaged.
You're losing organic matter and then the soil becomes less productive over time.
So we're standing one of the few long-term studies, here in North Carolina looking at the impact, of soil management in particular tillage.
- [Cara] The study started in 1984.
Within this field we have randomized tillage treatments.
- Looking at things as intense as Mouldboard plough, where we flip the soil over completely, down to eight to 12 inches, heavily disturbed versus chisel plowing, kind of semi disturbed and then disking, which kind of is kind of middle ground, we compare it to no-till, which is we do not touch the soil, the only interaction we have with the soil, is when we plant the crops in this tiny slot.
On the left here up higher, you can see this is the no-till site, it has been tilled for 38 years.
On the right here is the Mouldboard plough, which again was heavily disturbed and we've lost, you know, half a foot of soil from erosion and soil organic matter being lost.
It takes, you know, centuries to build up top soils.
So this is a permanent loss, won't be fixed anytime soon - [Cara] Across the board, for all years conservation tillage and in particular no-till, had more consistent and higher yields, in comparison to the conventionally tilled plots.
And in particular, we saw that we had higher yields, in these drier conditions.
So we thought that potentially water could be the answer.
- [Alex] When we till over the long term, we're losing the integrity of the soil.
So when rain does occur, it breaks up anything on the the surface and causes a surface seal or crusting.
- And here is some nice evidence of crusting.
So you can even just like peel this off.
- When a rain event does occur, a large portion of that water will hit that crust and move off.
The only place we don't see crusting, is in the no-till plots.
You know this is from the year before, having material on the surface that kind of blankets and provides armor and protection to the bear soil.
At this field site where you have no till, where you have got nice soil structure, it allows water to move in, versus a surface seal, water is not being moved through the root zone and so they're kinda experiencing, complete different conditions depending on your soil health.
- This is soil from the Mouldboard disk plot and Alex is going to bring in soil from the no-till plot.
- [Alex] The colors are, they are pretty bold there.
I didn't expect it to be that different.
- This soil has some nice granular structure and is darker because of higher amounts, of soil organic carbon.
- 38 years ago, this is all the same soil type.
It was all, you know, one field, they were growing probably hay and corn and now after 38 years looks like, you have fundamentally different soils.
You can really change the direction of the soil type, just with some simple management like no-till.
[intense music] - [Beverly] As a farmer, it's all about efficiency, it's all about profitability.
We were able to build the soil quality.
We were able to cut down on fertilizer costs, so we've been able to minimize cost, as a result of going with regenerative agriculture.
[calming instrumental music] - Grasslands are a fundamental part of our landscape.
We think that grasslands, are about a third of the global carbon sinks.
There are records that we can read, dating back to the 1500s about grasslands.
Anyone that came here that was a European, would write about waiting through the Savannahs.
- And a lot of that had to do with how indigenous people, had been managing the land for thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of years.
- The early explorers, they found these grand open areas and the first explorer to this area John Lawson, he could almost always smell smoke, because of the American Indians burning here.
- This is already a cultivated place, especially here in the southeast and North Carolina, grasslands have this very, very very strong connection, with human beings.
- [Johnny] The plants that make up the Piedmont Prairie, the Piedmont Savannah are what are called halophytic.
So they're sun loving and once they start to get shaded out, they decline.
- [Justin] And so one of the places, we find some of these plants, that have mostly vanished from other parts of the landscape, is in power line easements and along roadsides.
We find these plants that look, like they quote unquote belong in the Midwest.
We find the big prairie grasses, we find the asters, we find the echinaceas, the comb flowers.
We find them in these places, because they are the right kinds of conditions.
- [Johnny] The plants that grow in so many of these sites, grow in very poor soil conditions.
When the summertime when it dries out, it's like concrete, but in the winter when it's wet, it's gummy.
That's why they have deep roots, because they can spread out and grab what's out there.
- [Tara] They could be up to 10 feet deep.
There are studies that show, that the chemicals that come from grassland roots, actually stay in the soil up to centuries and so they're working to sequester carbon for centuries.
- One of the important things to remember about plants, is that they cannot move.
And so that fact changes everything, about how they have to behave and how they have to be set up, to take all the different things, that they will be surrounded by.
Plants have to prepare for the extreme events.
- [Tara] Native plants have a relationship to this place, for thousands of years.
- There are a lot of climate models out there and still it's uncertain what's going to happen, as climate changes.
Some of the models show that the Piedmont, will become hotter and drier.
Well, that's okay for these Piedmont Savannah species, because that's what they're adapted to.
They have seen so many different climates, throughout their, let's say, genetic memory.
So we're hoping that the Piedmont is a place where, there's a tremendous amount of resilience, among the native plants here.
[calming music] - One thing about prairie plants, is that they thrive in degraded landscapes.
And so if we think about all of our landscapes now, as we're developed, so many of them are quote degraded and people just sort of give up on 'em and think maybe I'm not gonna plant anything, when actually they're the perfect landscapes, the perfect situation for prairie plants like this.
- [Justin] So this is the Chatham Mills pollinator garden as stewarded and designed by Debbie Roos, who is an extension agent here in Chatham County.
These are areas that would've been planted, in great myrtle's and monkey grass.
Look at what happened, what can happen, with just a little bit of attention, some knowledge, some knowhow.
It changes the feel of where we are, right?
This feels like North Carolina, in the way that like a strip mile parking lot would never.
- When we're thinking about native plants in this area, we're have to think about grassland plants, not just woodland plants.
And as a result, we need to think about, what that means about a garden.
[Tara giggles] It's like a troll, it's a little troll.
- All right, you ready?
We are here in Carrboro, North Carolina and we are here at the Toney and Nellie Strayhorn house.
This house has been here in my family for seven generations.
It was built in 1879, 5 brick masons, oh my family brick masons and they also were farmers and they attended this land.
- I'm Landon's cousin.
We're working on plants together, thinking about ways that we can steward the land, in this area for another nine generations.
- [Landon] My great-grandmother was basically, the last person to actually garden in this area and I've felt like it was a need, to kind of restore that project.
[snipping noises] - Restoring degraded landscapes, could sequester 37% of the carbon, that we need to keep temperature rise under 3.6 degrees.
To me that's really powerful, because it's sort of like a low hanging fruit.
Like we need to create all these new technologies and like switch the grid and there's all these things we need to do, but like why would we not just be like, planting backyard gardens and restoring landscapes?
[calming music] - Plants like these tall, long-lived grasses, like big blue stem or Indian grass, those plants can live for hundreds of years and so over the course of that time, they are taking all of this atmospheric carbon and taking it from the air and putting it underground.
Where as long as we don't plough it up, we'll stay there.
- [Tara] People are just starting to think about, the value of grasses on their own.
These amazing plants that are indigenous to the Piedmont.
Very abundant and very easy to plant.
You just think about all of our roadways and backyards in empty lots, that could be turned into grasslands and could sequester carbon and foster biodiversity, filter storm water.
That's an incredible potential.
[calming music] [cheerful music] - Hyde county is a really unique place.
We're located right on the Pamlico Sound, on the coast of North Carolina.
It's very flat and very low.
There's about 84,000 acres of farmland in Hyde County.
- Drainage ditches are very important, to being able to farm our land, to be able to get in the water off when we get a rain.
But you know, if you don't have a tide gate or some way to stop the salt water coming back, it'll back up in there.
- [Andrea] When the wind's blowing in the wrong direction or you got storm surge from a hurricane, it doesn't take long and you've got salty water pushing back into the fields.
[calming instrumental music] For the most part, when the water is pushed up, in these ditches and into the fields, it's affecting the edges right along the ditches.
- Then there's other areas that the crop will come up and grow, but it just won't be effective.
It won't yield very good.
It's not something that's just started, it's something that's been happening for generations.
But there's new places that we're seeing it come and it's getting worse.
Our farm is located really close to the Pamlico Sound.
We're only 18 inches above sea level.
The normal tide is what we really try, to keep out of our ditches.
We can't control whether a hurricane comes over, into the field, but if we can keep the saltwater, out of there every day, then we can make progress on it.
Salt water on this side, freshwater on that side.
This gate keeps the salt water from going in, when we get rain and and the water's higher, on the freshwater side, it allows the freshwater to go out.
- This is a salinity meter.
It measures salinity in parts per thousand.
Whenever I check water for a farmer or a landowner I want it to be less than two, yeah.
- [Dawson] What is it right there?
- [Andrea] 13 and a half.
- That ain't good, is it?
- This thing must be leaking.
- [Andrea] Says 18 six.
- There's why that gates crack.
This one has a leak so we just gotta open it up and clean the grass out of it.
- As an ag agent for Hyde County, I work with the farmers to determine, what the unique needs of Hyde County are.
A big one, forming a saltwater intrusion and it's an issue but we're still farming and raising really good crops, producing high yields, high above the state average.
Whenever you say, "well, we need to do research, we need to find out what we can do".
But then we'll say, "well, have you seen the maps?
Have you seen the prediction maps for sea level rise?
Like they just need to leave."
- It would be near impossible to just pick up your farm and move it somewhere.
You've got land that you've a family has farmed, for a hundred years or more.
You just can't go find farmland somewhere else and start farming.
That's pretty impossible.
- [Andrea] Especially being an extension agent.
Like we're here to provide solutions.
- Look who it is.
My role as an extension agent is basically, to connect the farmers with unbiased, research based information from NC State and all the other land grant universities.
- The soils in eastern North Carolina, specifically in the Tidewater region, are very high in organic matters.
There's a reason that some of our largest producing farms, in the state are out in this area.
These soils are particularly susceptible, saltwater intrusion because they have high organic matter, high clays and organic matter and clays, hold onto salts better than something that's sandy, where it will just wash through the system.
Holding onto salt at the surface, is not a good thing in the plant root zones.
- Well, this is a really, really bad spot.
- [Dawson] The soil just packed so tight, that water can't go through it.
- And you could pick up like a chunk of the soil and you could see like the layers of the salt.
- Prime agricultural soils have good soil structure.
So this is shapes and these shapes, are held together with clays and organic matter.
Can you hand me some of that reference stuff?
- [Female Speaker] Yeah.
- So this is non salt impacted same soil.
- [Cameraman] Oh wow.
- [Matthew] Yeah.
Entering salt into the system, leads to loss of that structure.
And when we're losing structure in soils, we lose water movement, we get more erosion, loss of carbon.
- An average agricultural field will have about one, to one and a half percent carbon, whereas out in Hyde county, we see the upwards of like 6% carbon, which is incredibly high and very important to keep in that soil.
- One of the alternative uses for marginal farmlands, that have gotten too salty, is to put them in a conservation reserve programs, which are typically taking them out of agriculture and putting them into more natural conditions.
This is just a linear marsh.
I mean this is like carbon sequestration 101.
Carbon accumulation leads to building lands.
By locking up carbon in soil, you're actually increasing elevation and by doing that you're fighting sea level rise.
So we're adding a lot of biomass every year, from our marsh plants, but the soil microbes are not happy.
They're not able to process that efficiently and send it back to the atmosphere as CO2.
And what ends up happening is you get a buildup, of organic material.
There would be a benefit for the farmers, in that you're building land up in front of their farm.
It's like a natural berm and if that can keep up with sea level rise, that's protecting your farm behind here from storm surge.
So do you guys get like soil tests every year from NCDA?
Or every few years?
The farmers know their soils, so they do soil testing all the time.
And so relative to what their last soil test was, what is the soil test this time tell them?
Currently the methodologies that are available to farmers, are time intensive and that in many cases after a hurricane, does not allow for management decisions on a quick basis.
So we're trying to develop rapid methodologies, that are essentially field kits, that can be used by extension agents out in the field.
So in 40 minutes you can get a similar answer, to what would take over a month right now, through the state labs.
- That's what's exciting.
Now everybody's coming together and is working hard to find solutions for the farmers.
If we could find some salt tolerant varieties or develop some crops that can be marketed and are profitable that we could grow on the land, that we're trying to get turned around, that would really be great.
- I think the future is going to be challenging, but I mean I've got a son that's going to college, he wants to come back and farm, so we're doing everything we can, to preserve our land for the future.
- [Beverly] There's nothing hasten still, it's a matter of thinking outside of the box.
- [Curtis] It's an amazing amount of carbon, that we can store in these systems.
- [Sara] We really have to steward them right.
- [Justin] You can drive on like any highway almost and see this same starry pattern.
- There's nothing more North Carolina than this.
[calming instrumental music] ♪