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Carbon Accumulation by U.S. Forests May Slow Over the Next 25 Years

Photo of Mixed Species Forest. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.Mixed Species Forest. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.Snapshot : U.S. forests currently help offset carbon emissions and reduce the overall costs of achieving emission targets but that could change over the next 25 years. The accumulation of carbon stored in U.S. forests may slow in the future, primarily due to land use change and forest aging, according to findings by Forest Service scientists. Future declines in forest carbon sequestration could influence emission reduction targets and impact the costs of achieving policy goals. Policies that encourage retaining or expanding forest land could enhance carbon sequestration levels over the next 25 years.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Coulston, JohnWear, David N.
Vose, James 
Research Location : Raleigh, N.C.
Research Station : Southern Research Station (SRS)
Year : 2016
Highlight ID : 1180


Using detailed forest inventory data, Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) scientists David Wear and John Coulston estimated the amount of atmospheric carbon U.S. forests currently sequester. They found that forests offset 173 million metric tons of carbon emissions. The scientists used five different scenarios to project carbon accumulation over the next 25 years and found that under all of the scenarios, the ability of U.S. forests to sequester carbon will decline overall, with forests in some regions faring better than others. The projections show only a gradual decline in forest carbon sequestration in the East, but a rapid decline to zero by 2037 in the Rocky Mountain region, where forests could become a carbon emission source due to disturbances such as fire and insect epidemics. They found that carbon sequestration in the Pacific Coast region will fluctuate from current levels but then stabilize as forests harvested in previous decades regrow. The researchers found that land use change strongly influences the amount of forest carbon stored. One of the scenarios they ran simulated the effects of policies that would encourage the retention or expansion of forest land as a way to enhance carbon sequestration. They found that reforesting or restoring 19.1 million acres over the next 25 years, a plausible goal in light of historical conservation efforts such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program, could yield significant gains in carbon sequestration.