Wild Carbon


A Forest Left In Peace

There’s not much carbon in the entire universe. And yet, somehow, this element appeared on earth and from carbon the first plants and trees emerged. This plant emergence began about 450,000 million years ago. This fact might give us pause because it suggests how unique this planet really is in its ability to create and sustain life.

Today we are faced with an unprecedented amount of carbon in our atmosphere. Carbon emissions far exceed the ability of trees and plants to absorb carbon. Carbon emissions raise the earth’s temperature too rapidly. Climate Change is the result, and unlike normal cycles of climate change that stretch over millennia, this time humans have initiated these extreme shifts in the weather. Climate change began with onset of the Industrial age and the rise of technology and today it threatens the fabric that supports all life as we know it. Ice caps melt, land masses sink, fires and droughts erupt throughout the world as the planet continues to heat up.

Ironically, one way to slow Climate Change (and by far the cheapest) is by allowing old forests to survive. In addition to storing carbon old forests build soil, cycle nutrients, mitigate pollution, purify water, release oxygen and provide habitat for wildlife.

We have two sources of carbon sequestration that can never be replaced: peatlands and old forests. 

Mark G Anderson, PhD of the Northeast Wilderness Trust (www.newildernesstrust.com) has this to say about old forests:

 “A long-standing debate over the value of old forests in capturing and storing carbon has prompted a surge of synthesis studies published in top science journals (like Nature) during the last decade.”

What follows are five points that are supported by solid evidence.

We now know that trees accumulate carbon over their entire lifetime. All plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and transform it into carbon rich sugars that are then converted to cellulose to create biomass (trunks, bark and leaves of trees), or the cellulose is transferred below ground to feed roots and fungal networks. Over the long lifespan of trees large amounts of carbon are removed from the air and stored in the biomass (or underground). Although tree growth slows over its lifetime there is a corresponding increase in the tree’s total leaf area that allows the tree to store more tree carbon as it ages. At one site, large trees comprised 6 percent of the trees but 33 percent of the annual forest growth. Young trees grow fast, but old trees store a disproportional amount of carbon.

Old forests contain vast amounts of carbon. Up until recently it was believed that old forests ceased becoming carbon sinks, but new research finds that carbon storage increased in most stands more than 180 years old. Thus, old growth forests need to be left intact. This information is particularly important because old forests in the tropics that have acted as long-term net biomass/carbon sinks are now vulnerable to edge effects, logging and thinning, or increased mortality from other disturbances. 

Old forests also accumulate and store carbon in the soil as previously mentioned. Recent studies have shown that the top layers of the soil found in old forests store atmospheric carbon at an astonishingly high rate. Organic soil carbon concentration increases significantly every year. 

Forests share carbon not just among themselves but also between tree species. Recent research made possible by stable carbon isotope labeling indicates that trees interact in complex ways. Studies found that carbon assimilated by spruce was traded with neighboring beech, larch, and pine trees by way of tree roots assisted by mycorrhizal fungal networks, and that these mycorrhizal networks became more connected and took up more carbon as forest succession progressed.

 Almost 24 billion metric tons of carbon could be stored by forests while safeguarding food security and biodiversity. An analysis of 18,507 forest plots in the Northeast found that old forests (greater than 170 years) supported the largest carbon pools and the highest levels of carbon storage, timber growth, and species diversity.  Here we see that recent peer-reviewed science has established that unmanaged forests can be highly effective at capturing and storing carbon.

Mark Anderson concludes “it is now clear that trees accumulate carbon over their entire lifespan and that old, wild forests accumulate far more carbon than they lose through decomposition and respiration, thus acting as carbon sinks. This is especially true when taking into account the role of undisturbed soils only found in unmanaged forests. In many instances, the carbon storage potential of old and wild forests far exceeds that of managed forests. In the Northeast, a vigorous embrace of natural climate solutions to mitigate global overheating does not require an either/or choice between managed and unmanaged forests. Conserving unmanaged wild forests is a useful, scalable, and cost-effective complementary strategy to the continued conservation of well-managed woodlands”.

What we do need to do is to find ways to reduce unnecessary forest devastation by implementing kinder ways of logging our mountains. We could also curtail unnecessary forest edge destruction. A perfect example is what’s happening to the trees on Route 26. Is the widening of the road in Bryant Pond to service more traffic, increased speed, more people streaming in to the area really necessary when so many trees are being sacrificed?

2 thoughts on “Wild Carbon

    1. The question is: how can we get people to care? Global warming will continue no matter what we do – we crossed that threshold during these last ten years…. now its about mitigating the damage – I write about this stuff to keep my sanity -but my guess is few read this kind of thing. Thanks Tom!


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