Carbon

Solving climate change means reducing global carbon emissions.

Climate change is driven by the increase in concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, primarily due to fossil fuel combustion. Fortunately, the Earth’s forests, soils, and natural systems can be a powerful tool to slow this dangerous build-up—if they are properly conserved and managed. Woodwell Climate scientists work across continents and fields of study to find comprehensive strategies to promote natural climate solutions for reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

Experts
All Carbon Experts

Any carbon stored on land is carbon that is not in the atmosphere.

Before you can manage a problem, you must be able to consistently and accurately measure it and monitor it. Woodwell Climate scientists measure and track the amount and distribution of carbon in vegetation and soils—from forests in the Tropics to temperate croplands and permafrost in the Arctic—so that we can better understand the storage and dynamics of land-based carbon, as well as how much is being lost and how it can be restored.

soil carbon debt map

Above: 12,000 years of agriculture and development have driven the loss of carbon stored in soils. This map indicates the potential for soil carbon restoration as a climate mitigation strategy.

Data from Sanderman et. al, PNAS (2017)

Map by Greg Fiske

By harnessing these data, Woodwell’s research contributes to the fundamental understanding of the carbon cycle and its impacts on climate. Our work is foundational in the search for natural solutions to climate change, with the power to inform science, guide policy and education, and help reshape agricultural and business practices around the world.

Where we’re focused

Forests play a pivotal role in mitigating climate change by absorbing and storing carbon. By developing and employing innovative carbon monitoring systems, and conducting research on aboveground carbon stores around the world, Woodwell researchers are creating important new knowledge about the Earth’s temperate, tropical and boreal forests and vegetation—and using it to protect them from deforestation, degradation and disturbance.

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Above: Forest land in Eastern Siberia near Yakutsk.

Photo courtesy of Tatiana Shestakova

Employing soils as a carbon sink may prove to be an important climate change mitigation strategy. But as land use and ecosystems rapidly change, it can be difficult to estimate the size and distribution of soil carbon loss. Woodwell researchers are working to better map, measure, and monitor soil carbon in the Arctic, in rainforest ecosystems, and in agricultural regions across the United States and throughout the world.

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Above: Soil samples ready for analysis in Woodwell Climate’s laboratory.

© Chris Linder

Coastal wetlands and marshes are critical biodiversity hotspots and protect communities from storms. They also act as important carbon sinks. Mangroves, for instance, contain 4.5 times the amount of carbon the U.S. emits each year. Woodwell researchers are working to better measure this “blue carbon”—the carbon captured and stored by the world’s coastal ecosystems—to understand its role in the global carbon cycle, and how we can protect these important ecosystems.

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Above: Collecting a water sample during Arctic fieldwork.

© Chris Linder

The global carbon budget describes the releases of carbon from fossil fuel combustion and land use, and how that carbon is taken up by the atmosphere, land, and oceans. This carbon budget is important for predicting future rates of climatic change—but many of the factors that go into the carbon budget are still unclear. Understanding the processes responsible for carbon sinks could improve models used to predict future climate change and determine limits to fossil fuel use to mitigate its effects.

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Above: Soil samples awaiting analysis to determine carbon content.

Addressing the climate crisis requires that we rapidly reduce carbon emissions while also implementing strategies to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. Protecting, restoring, and better managing the planet’s lands can provide immediate carbon storage and climate mitigation, buying us time to decarbonize. Woodwell Climate researchers are at the forefront of exploring, vetting, and supporting natural climate solutions. Our collaborative approach and deep knowledge of land carbon dynamics – aboveground and in soils, from the Arctic to the tropics – are fundamental to realizing these solutions.

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Above: A tree nursery supporting forest restoration in Venezuela.

Photo courtesy of Wayne Walker
Land can either store or emit carbon. Identifying land-based strategies to maximize storage and minimize emissions is a complex puzzle that begins with carbon cycle science, but extends to economics and social science making every day a captivating challenge and a humbling education. Dr. Wayne Walker, Carbon Program Director