They keep us cool, we cut them down

Standing forests are our best natural climate solution. So why aren’t we treating them that way?

In terms of climate mitigation, forests are like green gold—working overtime to cool the planet, while also supporting a wealth of biodiversity. But we have not been saving them as one would a precious asset. Despite pledges to end deforestation, old growth forests are being cut down at alarming rates. And planting new trees is widely prioritized and incentivized over protecting existing forests. Across the board, standing forests are vastly undervalued. This has to change if we are to stand a chance of limiting warming to internationally agreed targets.

Forests are global air conditioners

According to a recent study from scientists at Woodwell and the University of Virginia, tropical forests alone are holding back approximately 1 degree Celsius of warming. About 75% of that cooling effect is due to carbon sequestration. Forests grow, trees lock away carbon in their trunks and roots and shunt it into the soil. The other 25% comes from the innate properties of forests that work to cool vast regions of the globe.

Through photosynthesis, plants release water vapor into the air in a process called evapotranspiration. The vapor contributes to cooling near the ground, as well as cloud formation higher in the atmosphere that reduces incoming solar radiation. The shape of the tree canopy also contributes. So-called canopy “roughness” disrupts air flow above the forest. The more uneven the canopy, the more turbulent the air, which disperses heat away from the surface. In the tropics, evapotranspiration and canopy roughness are high, which means that surface temperatures remain relatively low, with the heat dispersed throughout the deep atmosphere.

Forests also naturally produce molecules called biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOC), which can either contribute to cooling by encouraging the formation of clouds, or to warming by creating ozone and methane. In the tropics, the net effect of these chemicals is cooling.

The cumulative result of these properties is that when forests are removed, the land around them begins to heat up even faster, which can increase the frequency of extreme heat and drought events. Without forests, some regions will become a lot less resilient to sudden shocks. And the release of carbon contributes to global warming which further exacerbates hot, dry conditions.

“Forests act like air conditioners,” says Woodwell Assistant Scientist, Dr. Ludmila Rattis, who studies the impacts of deforestation on agriculture in Brazil. “Deforesting in the face of climate change is like getting rid of your air conditioners before an upcoming heatwave.”

Not all forests are created equally

Protecting forests, and maintaining the cooling services they provide, is vital to limiting warming. But, with forests covering 30% of the Earth’s land, prioritizing protection is a massive task. And when it comes to carbon storage, not all forests are equally valuable. Older, healthier forests tend to have a more secure hold on their carbon.

“Mature forests have higher biodiversity and create their own microclimate,” says Woodwell Associate Scientist, Brendan Rogers. “They’re more resistant to drought and other types of disturbance. And because of that, they tend to be more stable in the face of environmental perturbations over time.”

New research from Woodwell and Griffith University has developed a method of identifying high-value forests using satellite imagery. Estimating the metric of “forest stability” through satellite data on the light reflected by vegetation and a water stress index of the tree canopy, researchers were able to determine gradients of stability within forest patches in the Amazon and boreal forests.

Using a gradient of forest stability allows for a better prioritization of forest protection strategies based on their carbon value.

“The first priority is to protect stable forests from further human disturbance,” says paper co-author Dr. Brendan Mackey. “The second priority is to identify forest areas where restoration efforts will be most cost effective.”

Guarding the forests that guard our future

But if the state of existing forests is any indication, forest protection continues to be deprioritized. Many wildfires are left to burn unless they threaten human settlements. Governments continue to incentivize deforestation for development or agricultural expansion. Indigenous and local communities are not compensated for their work stewarding their territories and keeping forests safe. And the warmer the planet gets, the more susceptible even protected forests become to drought, fire, and disease.

Research has shown that stewarding standing primary forests, and reviving degraded ones, represents the greatest opportunity for near-term carbon storage and removal. A study of global land-based carbon storage potential found that improved management of existing forests alone could store approximately 215 billion metric tons more than they currently do.

Protecting forests is cost effective, too. For example, in the United States, investing in fire fighting in Alaska’s boreal forests would require just $13 per ton of CO2 emissions avoided. That’s easily on par with other mitigation strategies like onshore wind or solar energy generation.

Effective strategies for protecting forests already exist, they’ve just been suffering from a lack of force—and often funding—behind their implementation. For example, forest carbon markets—where landowners and forest stewards are paid to protect standing forests that are otherwise vulnerable to deforestation—have the potential to keep forests safe while offsetting emissions from other sectors. But nascent carbon markets are inefficient, with weak standards for verifying the quality of credits being sold, and lacking the transparency needed to ensure credits are actually reducing overall emissions, rather than greenwashing carbon-intensive business practices.

Credits are also priced incorrectly for their relative climate value—the market currently values reforestation credits more highly, reducing incentive for landowners to conserve standing, old-growth forests when there is a better livelihood to be made in legally deforesting land for  other uses. A truly effective carbon markets system would require large investments in science that can verify credit standards.

Forests are like our global carbon savings accounts—when we cut them down, we’re drawing out money and limiting our ability to collect interest and keep growing our funds. Successful mitigation can’t be accomplished without taking the full value of forests into account and strengthening policies to reflect that. If they aren’t, the planet will pay a far greater price for it as temperatures rise.

“We can’t afford to keep cutting forests. We need to reduce emissions now, and protecting forests is one of our best available solutions. Despite the obstacles, it’s worth the investment,” says Dr. Rogers.

It’s a windy morning in May and the Valdez ranch in Delta County, Colorado is alive with the sounds of lowing cattle, chattering sparrows, and the whirrs and clanks of scientific equipment. This particular field is not being grazed at the moment, so Woodwell’s soil carbon team has free rein over the rows of alfalfa and sweetgrass.

In collaboration with Dr. Megan Machmuller at Colorado State University, Assistant scientist Dr. Jennifer Watts and senior scientist Dr. Jon Sanderman have brought their teams here to collect field observations that will help inform a comprehensive model of carbon storage on rangelands across the United States. Grazing lands have the potential to be a valuable carbon sink, provided the livestock on them are being sustainably managed, but the true magnitude of that value is not yet well understood. Developing a regional model of the way carbon moves through rangelands will deepen our understanding of the role they play as a natural climate solution.

Ensuring the model’s accuracy requires the team to collect an array of field data from different ranch types—from irrigated and planted pasture, to the natural vegetation of high mountain and desert grazing lands. Here’s how climate scientists study carbon in the field:

Carbon flux: What’s moving in and out of the atmosphere?

Soil carbon storage begins where plants interact with the air. As they grow, plants draw carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis. When they decay, microbes in the soil digest plant matter and breathe carbon dioxide and methane back out. Measuring the difference between these two processes gives us “net ecosystem flux”—a measure of whether a patch of land is sequestering or emitting carbon overall.

Measuring carbon flux requires a specially made chamber. Dr. Watts and Seasonal Field Technician Jonas Noomah employed a plexiglass contraption that Noomah constructed himself. The chamber is placed over a patch of ground, connected by clear tubes to a machine that can analyze the volume of CO2 within the cube. A handheld fan dangles inside the box to keep the air circulating. The transparent plexiglass allows photosynthesis to continue unhindered. After a few minutes, the box is covered to block out the light and the analysis is run again to capture emissions without the photosynthesis component. The numbers can be compared to assess the rate and overall carbon sink or source status of flux within the ecosystem.

Plant productivity: What’s growing under-hoof?

While plants are growing, they lock away carbon as part of their leaves, stems, and roots, so another important metric in the carbon model is plant productivity—more productive plants with established root systems are more likely to store more carbon belowground. 

Productivity can be estimated with satellite imagery, but needs to be validated with on-the-ground measurements. Postdoctoral researcher Dr. Yushu Xia and research assistant Haydée Hernández-Yañez walked transects of pasture to collect data on a variety of indicators that could influence aboveground (and belowground) biomass, including height of vegetation, soil moisture, and temperature. Then the scissors come out and all the plants in a plot are cut and put into a labeled paper bag to be weighed and analyzed later in a lab to determine the total mass of plant matter.

Rangelands managed for better carbon storage also come with a host of co-benefits, including higher levels of plant diversity. Different plants cycle carbon and other nutrients at different rates, so Hernández-Yañez sifts through the vegetation before it’s snipped, identifying and recording the species to provide more detail in productivity estimates.

Soil carbon: What’s locked deep in the ground?

Over time, carbon passes out of the cycle of growth and decay, becoming locked underground as soil organic carbon. Accessing and analyzing soil organic carbon requires coring deep into the earth and pulling out a stratified cylinder of dirt. Dr. Machmuller led the team’s soil coring effort along with Dr. Sanderman and research assistant Colleen Smith. 

With a hydraulic soil coring machine attached to the back of a pickup truck, the team rambled through muddy pasture and over sharp bushes to collect 50 centimeter cores. When the terrain was too steep, they pulled out a handheld corer that had to be driven into the soil with a sledgehammer. 

The soil cores are separated into three sections and crumbled up. Smith then uses a handheld scanner that employs the same technology used by astronomers to determine the chemical makeup of distant star systems to read the carbon content of each section. The scanner bounces light off the soil particles and the pattern of reflection gives clues to what molecules are present at different depths. Abundance of carbon is sometimes obvious to the naked eye in the cores, showing up as darker, wet sticky soil.

Putting data in the hands of land managers

Drs. Watts and Sanderman and their team are in the process of creating a rangeland carbon management tool that will make the soil carbon data model accessible directly to ranch managers. The website, developed by Dr. Xia, will generate data on carbon and plant productivity, for any geographic area down to the size of a single pasture. The hope is that the tool could be integrated into land managers long-term decision making, and show the results of adapting to more holistic, sustainable management practices over time. 

“In the western US on our rangelands, just like in our croplands, we can change how we manage in a way that potentially could become a natural climate solution,” says Dr. Watts. “One where we’re bringing in more carbon than we’re emitting and we’re creating ecosystems that not only are beneficial for carbon sequestration, but also have more biodiversity, offer more habitat for wildlife, and more water conservation.”

Demonstrating the co-benefits of managing rangelands for carbon will also help expand conversations about whether ranching can be done sustainably, from the ground up. 

“It allows for transfer of climate solutions into the hands of practitioners who may not otherwise think about climate change. It opens the conversation.” says Dr. Watts. 

Ultimately, having that data could be useful for rangeland managers taking part in carbon credit markets, which could help them get paid for sustainable management.

“Rangelands haven’t been included in voluntary carbon credit markets like cropping systems have,” says Dr. Sanderman. “Their monitoring is a big problem because there’s so much land. How do you keep track of all that? That’s what our tool will be able to offer.”

A recent study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has quantified the unrealized potential of land-based carbon storage. A series of maps shows that both plants and soils have the potential to store 287 billion metric tons more across the globe— more than the current annual emissions of the European Union. 

“From forests to soils, terrestrial ecosystems store enormous amounts of carbon globally, and are capable of storing even more,” said Dr. Wayne Walker, Carbon Program Director at Woodwell Climate Research Center and study lead author. “But realizing the untapped potential of land to aid in addressing the climate crisis means understanding how much storage space is available, where in the world that space is located, and what actions can be taken in those places to take advantage of the opportunity they offer as rapidly as possible. This study provides the data and conceptual framework for doing that.”

These findings reveal the significant potential for expanding land-based carbon capture globally through protection, restoration, and improved management of forests and other woody systems. Improved management of existing forests alone may offer more than 75% of the untapped potential, with the vast majority (71%) of it concentrated in tropical ecosystems.

“Forest stewardship represents the greatest opportunity for realizing carbon removal and storage in the near term, and the urgency of the climate crisis demands that we prioritize these efforts,” said Peter Ellis, Director of Natural Climate Solutions Science at The Nature Conservancy and study co-author. “Our research shows that after safeguarding lands required for food production and human habitation, improved management of forests and other woody systems — particularly degraded forests across the global tropics — offers tremendous climate mitigation potential.”

The study is timely, coming on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Working Group III’s latest report, which focuses on the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions in order to limit future warming, and highlights the significant mitigation potential of natural and managed ecosystems given the opportunity they offer to remove additional carbon from the atmosphere. While study results point to the significant opportunity that land offers as a natural climate solution based on what we know now, this work cannot stop there. Future research should build off these findings to support development of policies that take full advantage of the available land-based carbon sink.

“We anticipate these findings will prove valuable for many countries, since natural climate solutions figure heavily in delivering Paris Agreement commitments in most countries. However, these results must be combined with a range of other information to prioritize and effectively implement natural climate solutions.” said Bronson Griscom, Senior Director of Natural Climate Solutions at Conservation International. 

The feasibility of land-based carbon mitigation in 4 graphics

Mist over the Amazon rainforest, photo by Chris Linder

The importance of natural climate solutions came to the forefront of climate talks in Glasgow last week as decision makers discussed the “how” of making good on emissions pledges.

One of the most powerful existing solutions we can deploy are land-based mitigation strategies, also known as natural climate solutions.  Forest protection and restoration, agroforestry, and other changes to the way we manage land can boost the amount of carbon ecosystems pull from the atmosphere and could help tackle 20-30 percent of the emissions reductions needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C. These graphics, based on a recent study in Global Change Biology, break down the potential and feasibility of land-based carbon mitigation.

Cost-effective mitigation is only 40% of the total technical potential

Cost-effective mitigation is only 40% of the total technical potential

Although there is great potential in land-based mitigation globally, some actions will be cheaper and easier to implement. Roughly 40 percent of the total carbon mitigation potential of land-based strategies can be considered cost-effective, with estimated price tags up to $100 per ton of carbon sequestered. On a global scale, actions like reducing deforestation or improving carbon sequestration on grasslands are incredibly cost effective. Shifting to healthier, more plant-based diets is another, individual, action that can have big impacts.

Agricultural mitigation is as important as forest protection in the Northern Hemisphere

Agricultural mitigation in Brazil vs United States

On a regional level, the value of different actions varies. In Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Africa, the greatest mitigation power lies in forests, both protecting existing forests and restoring degraded ones. In Brazil, which holds 60 percent of Amazon forests, the feasible benefits are striking. For developed nations, like the United States, improving sequestration on agricultural lands is a much larger piece of the equation, almost equal to forest-related measures. This is because developed countries like the U.S. have already cut their old-growth forests.

Some small but carbon-rich ecosystems are “too dense to fell”

Southeast Asia map of soil organic carbon (SOC)

Ecosystems like mangroves or peatlands offer opportunities to make big emissions reductions over relatively small areas. Mangrove forests store vastly more carbon per hectare than most terrestrial forests—primarily due to large soil carbon stores—and only occupy thin strips of coastline across much of the tropics.

Carbon mitigation potential chart: protection and restoration are best

Their outsize carbon sequestration and storage potential means that restoring them offers a much greater return on investment than other ecosystems, and failing to protect them could place climate goals in serious jeopardy. Though employing all land-based mitigation strategies at our disposal is crucial, targeting the most carbon-rich forests could be a quicker, easier, more cost-effective first step.

Giving carbon a home on the range

Adapting ranching practices in the US could increase carbon sequestered in the American West

man standing on ranch rangeland near Bozeman Montana, photo by Jonathan Sanderman
Rangelands occupy more than three quarters of global agricultural land. Many of the world’s native grassland ecosystems have been converted to grazing land for livestock, altering their ecology and changing the flow of carbon on the landscape. However, these lands still have the potential to be a powerful carbon sink if properly managed.

On September 27 and 28, Woodwell Climate Research Center convened a workshop in collaboration with Montana State University (MSU) and Turner Ranches to open discussions on rangeland management in the United States. The workshop took place in Bozeman, Montana, and brought together scientists, ranchers, and conservationists to share their perspectives on rangeland ecology, carbon sequestration, fire management, and herd health, as well as anecdotes from careers spent on the range.

“Montana offers a great location for this conversation because the majority of the state is amazing rangeland including unique grassland and sagebrush steppe environments, in many cases privately held,” said Dr. Stephanie Ewing, an Associate Professor at MSU who co-organized the event. “And because we have a strong academic and extension community at MSU that has been engaged with rangelands and rangeland managers over time.”

Day one began with a series of presentations and panels meant to facilitate discussion about rangeland management. Sessions covered rangeland ecosystem services, rangelands in the American West, management for carbon sequestration, carbon markets, and tools for rangeland monitoring.

For Dr. Jennifer Watts, Woodwell Assistant Scientist, the discussions highlighted the vast untapped potential of rangelands to play a positive part in climate mitigation.

“There’s so much rangeland in the western U.S. and so there is a huge potential for improving ecosystems and improving carbon sequestration and storage,” Dr. Watts said. “But the public doesn’t perceive rangelands with the same reverence that we do with forests or other ecosystems. I think if we start to value them at the national level, and realize the potential for ecosystem services and climate mitigation, that could shape how policy is going to move forward.”

The following day, attendees made site visits to two ranches in the area—Red Bluff Ranch, run by MSU, and Green Ranch, owned by Turner Enterprises—for a hands-on look at the topics they had discussed the day before. They examined soil pits, dug into the grass, and talked about different land management styles.

For Senior Scientist Dr. Jonathan Sanderman, the trip into the field was a catalytic moment in the workshop.

“After just a few hours on the ranches, I felt like a lot of people had lightbulbs go off about how long-term management has affected certain parts of land more than others, and how that feeds back to the soils,” Dr. Sanderman said.

One theme that emerged from the workshop was the need for more and better information on how rangelands could be included in carbon markets. While there was interest from landholders in participating, very few knew enough to get started. Drs. Watts and Sanderman hope future collaborations will allow them to dig deeper into the topic with ranchers.

“A well-functioning carbon market can provide climate benefits and an additional revenue stream, enhancing the economic resilience of ranching communities,” Dr. Sanderman said. “Quantifying and monetizing carbon sequestration from improved grazing management is still in its infancy. This means there is a lot of confusion and few agreed upon standards; but, it is also an opportunity to shape policies and design programs that benefit people and the environment.”

It also became evident that, while many ranchers were interested in carbon storage on their lands, what mattered more to them was the possibility of integrated benefits from holistic range management. Improving carbon storage in the soils can improve water management, nutrient retention, and other ecosystem services.

“Carbon is something that brings it all together,” Dr. Watts said.