Urban Natural Resources Stewardship

Carbon Storage

Research Issue

[photo:] Lawn soils have shown a surprisingly high capacity to sequester carbon. Photo by Ian Yesilonis, US Forest ServiceCarbon, the main constituent of soil organic matter, is important for water infiltration, water retention, erosion prevention, and nutrient supply to plants and animals. 
The amount of carbon stored in soil over time is a balance between carbon input through net primary productivity and loss through decay, both of which are controlled by environmental factors such as soil temperature and moisture.  Soil carbon is affected by the disturbances in the urban environment both directly, such as cut-and-fill construction practices, land use change, and management; and indirectly, such as the heat island effect.  These disturbances have negative consequences on the content of soil carbon.

Our Research

We have collected soil cores from a variety of locations in the Baltimore metropolitan area in order to determine the amount of carbon stored in urban soils.  While the potential for losses of carbon in urban landscapes can be high, urban soils have the capacity to accumulate a surprising amount of carbon when compared to agricultural or native soils.  Horticultural management efforts, e.g., fertilization and irrigation, tend to maximize plant productivity and soil organic matter accumulation for a given climate or soil type, and thus increase the capacity of these soils to store carbon. 

This is particularly true of lawns, where soils are not regularly cultivated and turf grass species typically grow through an extended growing season relative to most native grassland, forest, and crop ecosystems.  Indeed, lawn soils have shown a surprisingly high capacity to sequester carbon and cycle nitrogen, although the net effect on carbon uptake may be somewhat lower or even negative if carbon emissions resulting from management activities are taken into account.

Our research is to find patterns of urban soil carbon specifically by investigating land use, land cover, land history, management, and soil physical properties.  Urban soil carbon contents are then related to native areas, other cities, land use, land cover, and different management regimes.

Expected Outcomes

We expect our research results on carbon to help model urban soil carbon stocks related to land use and management change scenarios.  A way to achieve this is to provide data for existing models such as CENTURY that have not yet been calibrated for urban environments.  Results from this research can be used to inform policy decisions by providing base-line datasets and a conceptual framework to start the dialogue.

Research Products

Yesilonis, Ian D.; Pouyat, Richard V. 2012. Carbon stocks in urban forest remnants: Atlanta and Baltimore as case studies. Chapter 5. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer: 103-120.

Pouyat, Richard V.; Szlavecz, Katalin; Yesilonis, Ian D.; Groffman, Peter M.; Schwarz, Kirsten. 2010. Chemical, physical and biological characteristics of urban soils. Chapter 7. In: Aitkenhead-Peterson, Jacqueline; Volder, Astrid, eds. Urban Ecosystem Ecology. Agronomy Monograph 55. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Soil Science Society of America: 119-152.

Groffman, Peter M.; Williams, Candiss O.; Pouyat, Richard V.; Band, Lawrence E.; Yesilonis, Ian D. 2009. Nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide flux in urban forests and grasslands. Journal of Environment Quality. 38(5): 1848-1860.

Pouyat, Richard V.; Yesilonis, Ian D.; Golubiewski, Nancy E. 2009. A comparison of soil organic carbon stocks between residential turf grass and native soil. Urban Ecosystems. 12: 45-62.

Pouyat, R.V.; Yesilonis, I.D.; Russell-Anelli, J.; Neerchal, N.K.  2007. Soil chemical and physical properties that differentiate urban land-use and cover types. Soil Science of America Journal. 71(3): 1010-1019.

Pouyat, Richard V.; Yesilonis, Ian D.; Nowak, David J.  2006. Carbon storage by urban soils in the United States. Journal of Environmental Quality 35: 1566-1575.

Groffman, Peter M.; Pouyat, Richard V.; Cadenasso, Mary L.; Zipperer, Wayne C.; Szlavecz, Katalin; Yesilonis, Ian D.; Band, Lawrence E.; Brush, Grace S. . 2006. Land use context and natural soil controls on plant community and soil nitrogen and carbon dynamics in urban and rural forests. Forest Ecology and Management, Vol. 236: 177-192.

Pouyat, Richard V.; Russell-Anelli, Jonathan; Yesilonis, Ian D.; Groffman, Peter M.  2003. Soil carbon in urban forest ecosystems. In: Kimble, J.M.; Heath, Linda S.; Birdsey, Richard A.; Lal, R., eds. The potential of U.S. forest soils to sequester carbon and mitigate the greenhouse effect. Boca Raton: CRC Press: 347-362.

Pouyat, R.; Groffman, P.; Yesilonis, I; Hernandez, L.  2002. Soil carbon pools and fluxes in urban ecosystems. Environmental Pollution. 116: S107-S118.

Research Participants

Last Modified: November 10, 2015