Climate change | Forestry | Ecotrope

How Exactly Does a Forest Soak Up Carbon Dioxide?

Ecotrope | Aug. 5, 2011 7:02 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:36 p.m.

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A coastal redwood grove. Scientists say forests in the Pacific Northwest soak up carbon dioxide.

Thirty  years ago researchers thought that old forests gave off carbon dioxide. Now, as the Oregonian reports, scientists are increasingly convinced that older forests are net carbon sinks, and might help mitigate climate change.

A couple months ago, I asked Matt Schrader, a biologist at the Wind River Experimental Forest, to explain how this carbon sink business actually works. He boiled it down to this: if a forest is growing more than it is decaying, it’s a carbon sink. That’s because carbon dioxide is the raw material plants use to build sugars when they photosynthesize.

How many reasons can you come up with to preserve a national forest? John Muir (Sierra Club founder, not the sea bird) thought we ought to do it simply so we’d have a place for rest and spiritual inspiration.

We have used public forests as a source of wealth for the west, a filter for our water and air, a habitat for vanishing species, a place to hike and dig for gold.

Now they’re also carbon sinks, there to soak up the CO2 I produce driving to the trail head and leaving my kitchen light on.

I’ve heard from scientists like Schrader this shift in thinking about the value of the federal forests is shifting research priorities. It’s harder to get funding for studies that explore in depth the life cycle or phenology of a single species. Instead, grants are going to research exploring the carbon budget, or the impact of climate change, across entire ecosystems and regions.

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