Treasure in tree rings: Calculating sequestration

Wednesday 6 Apr 2022

Having a solid estimate of the amount of carbon that forests can pull from the atmosphere is essential for global accounting of climate change—leaders are counting on forests to pull a good chunk of human- produced carbon back to earth. But in reality, forests' ability to sequester carbon isn't as straightforward as it might appear on paper. In a new research synthesis, Justin DeRose from Department of Wildland Resources and colleagues from across North America offered an alternative strategy to counter the uncertainty of calculating the carbon that forests can sequester, using tree ring data from forest inventory plots.

Oceans, soils and forests are 'carbon sinks'—they have the ability to pull more carbon from the atmosphere than they put into it. Countries around the world depend on carbon sinks in their tally for achieving net-zero emissions. But the complex and delicate ecology of these systems are still somewhat unpredictable. Questions remain about how exactly forests will respond to the changing climate, and how to calculate what forests can do to help balance carbon accounts.

The global total for carbon pulled from the atmosphere by carbon sinks is traditionally estimated indirectly, by figuring the difference between human-produced emissions, the amount of carbon in the world's oceans and the level of atmospheric concentrations of CO2. Supplementing that indirect calculation with data from existing (and future) collections of tree rings could provide an on-the-ground, direct record of the carbon gained by individual trees and forests, with the specificity of an annual time stamp, DeRose said. And from there, researchers could scale up to estimate forest-wide and continent-wide carbon savings. Some existing tree ring data from recent inventories exists, but more work is needed to to interpret what this data offers as applied to carbon sequestration. For such a system to work, a few things need to happen first, DeRose said. Tree ring samples, along with the collection of associated forest data, could be collected nationally by efforts like the US Forest Inventory and Analysis Program. The goal of these programs historically has been to understand forest change, but they are a perfect tool to also help answer questions about carbon and climate systems. Although tree core samples have been collected during some inventories, their continued collection in all forests will require a concerted effort.


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