Northern Research Station News Releases

Reforestation has Growing Potential as Tool in Managing Carbon

Close-up view of hands surrounding a freshly-planted pine tree seedling. USDA Forest Service photo. Newtown Square, PA, February 26, 2018 - Forests sequester enough carbon from the atmosphere to offset more than 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions produced in the conterminous United States each year. The rate of carbon sequestration in forests however, is projected to decline in the decades ahead largely because of land-use dynamics and aging forests. USDA Forest Service scientists in collaboration with researchers from the University of Michigan, Cornell University, and Argonne National Laboratoryused empirical data to quantify soil carbon accumulation on reforested lands in the United States, demonstrating that reforestation is a powerful tool in managing topsoil carbon. 

The study, “Reforestation can sequester two petagrams of carbon in U.S. topsoils in a century,” was published on Feb. 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is available online through the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station at: https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/55717.

While soil is recognized for holding an estimated 74 percent of all terrestrial carbon, the role of land management in soil carbon dynamics has been difficult to quantify. Lead author Luke Nave of the University of Michigan and scientists Grant Domke, Charles Perry, and Brian Walters of the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program and Christopher Swanston of the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, a Forest Service collaboration, integrated 15,000 soil observations with remote sensing and other geospatial information to estimate topsoil carbon on lands being reforested. This is the first time that researchers have used empirical data to estimate these soil carbon gains across the U.S., and the observed rates of carbon accumulation suggest great potential for further increases if more land area were to be actively reforested.

Reforested land examined in the study included marginal croplands where forests are gradually taking over, as well as forests that are being actively replanted following wildfire. “Soil organic carbon is an important indicator of soil productivity and health,” Domke said. “This study quantifies how reforestation activities have increased topsoil carbon stocks in the U.S. and the potential these activities have for increasing soil carbon accumulation in the decades to come.”

“USDA Forest Service science is addressing some of the most challenging issues we face,” said Tony Ferguson, Director of the Northern Research Station and Forest Products Laboratory. “Data compiled by the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program is a unique national asset that contributes to managing forests to be healthy, productive and resilient.”

Uncertainties noted in the study include the extent to which carbon stocks change at deeper depths during reforestation, and the use of variables such as “stand age” in estimating carbon stocks.

In addition to Nave, Domke, Perry, Walters, and Swanston, co-authors include Katy Hofmeister of Cornell University and Umakant Mishra of Argonne National Laboratory.

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The mission of the Northern Research Station is to improve people's lives and help sustain the natural resources in the Northeast and Midwest through leading-edge science and effective information delivery.

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The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains world-renowned forestry research and wildland fire management organizations. National forests and grasslands contribute more than $30 billion to the American economy annually and support nearly 360,000 jobs. These lands also provide 30 percent of the nation's surface drinking water to cities and rural communities; approximately 60 million Americans rely on drinking water that originated from the National Forest System.

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USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. To file a complaint of discrimination, write to USDA, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Stop 9410, Washington, DC 20250-9410, or call toll-free at (866) 632-9992 (English) or (800) 877-8339 (TDD) or (866) 377-8642 (English Federal-relay) or (800) 845-6136 (Spanish Federal-relay).


Last modified: February 26, 2018