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Survey looks at carbon storage capacity in landscape

The Department of the Interior released the first in a series of regional studies measuring the amount of carbon stored in U.S. ecosystems. Published by Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the study examines the current and projected future carbon storage in the Great Plains region, as part of a nation-wide assessment.

“This is truly groundbreaking research that, for the first time, takes a landscape-level look at how our lands naturally store carbon and explores how we can encourage this capability in ways that enhance our stewardship of natural resources,” said  David J. Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior. “Our landscapes are helping us to absorb carbon emissions that would otherwise contribute to atmospheric warming.”

This is the first regional report applying a comprehensive methodology designed by the USGS in 2010 to assess how much carbon is stored in various ecosystems, such as wetlands, forests and rangelands. The study covers an area of the United States that includes parts of fourteen states from eastern Montana to southern Texas and eastern Iowa.

Following the Great Plains study, the USGS is expected to release studies on the western, eastern, Alaskan and Hawaiian regions. The full national assessment is expected to be completed around 2013.

A key finding in the Great Plains study is that the region is currently an overall “carbon sink,” meaning it takes up more carbon than it emits. In addition, the amount of carbon sequestered offsets most of the emissions of nitrous oxide and methane from this region.

On a national scale, the amount of carbon that is currently stored per year in ecosystems within the Great Plains is about 21% of emissions from personal vehicles and 3.6% of total fossil fuel emissions nationwide. The values for vehicle and total fossil fuel emissions are not part of the USGS study but were calculated using the 2009 EPA national greenhouse gas inventory report.

Using the uniform methodology developed by USGS also allows for comparisons between regions and ecosystems. For example, the regional study shows that the southern part of the Great Plains has a substantial amount of woody vegetation, which has a strong potential to store additional carbon. Agricultural lands in the eastern part of the Great Plains similarly have a strong potential to store carbon; however, these areas also are associated with high greenhouse gas emissions.

“For the first time, we will have a comprehensive view of how carbon is cycling through our Nation’s ecosystems: sources, sinks, and relative residence times in the various biological components,” said Marcia McNutt, USGS Director. “This study will not only result in better land-use decisions but should also advance our fundamental understanding of one of the most important chemical cycles on the planet.”

Congress called for the USGS carbon sequestration research in 2007 legislation sponsored by then-Senator Ken Salazar. At the 2009 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-15), Salazar – as Secretary of the Interior – presented the initiative, noting the importance of biological carbon sequestration.

As part of the study, USGS scientists produced current carbon storage estimates and made projections into the year 2050. Future estimates incorporate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections of climate change as well as USGS projections of land use and land cover change. By 2050, the USGS study estimates that carbon stored in the region is expected to increase by 29 to 36% , while emissions of nitrous oxide are expected to increase by 7 to 11% and methane is expected to change by -1.6% to 16%.

“This report will give tools to the policymakers, land managers and the public to make sound decisions, such as whether to restore wetlands, harvest trees, develop agricultural lands, or consider no-till farming practices,” Hayes said. For example, a community might need to decide whether to convert grasslands and forests to croplands or urban areas to meet the demands of a growing population. Such decisions have varying consequences related to carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions.

Changes in carbon storage are driven by both short – and long-term changes to the landscape. In the Great Plains, carbon storage is expected to increase based on near-future land use and management practices such as decreased timber harvesting and changes to crop management, including expanded fertilizer applications and no-till farming. The rate of increase is projected to slow somewhat over time due to climate change and land-use transitions such as grasslands or forests conversion to croplands or urban areas.

Research conducted by USGS scientists on the carbon cycle and potential for carbon sequestration was mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. In addition to the biological carbon sequestration assessment, the USGS is also assessing the nation’s potential for geologic carbon sequestration, which is the storage of carbon dioxide in underground rock formations.

Following the Great Plains study, the USGS is expected to release studies on the western, eastern, Alaskan and Hawaiian regions. The full national assessment is expected to be completed around 2013.

The report can be found online in the USGS publications warehouse at http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1787/.

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