Photo looking upwards at giant trees in a Washington state forest.
Carbon-holding trees The new mapping tool calculates U.S. forests' carbon storage capacity. © Wasim Muklashy/TNC Photo Contest 2019

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Scientists Identify Forest Carbon “Hotspots” across US with Greatest Potential to Fight Climate Change and Protect Species

New study and mapping tool allow decision-makers to determine carbon sequestration potential for forests over the next 30 years.

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A new scientific analysis and online mapping tool will allow land managers and other decision-makers to calculate the potential of intact forests across the continental US to capture and store climate-changing carbon emissions through 2050.

The new tool shows that many of America’s forests with the highest carbon stocks and high potential for future carbon sequestration also are among the most important places for diverse species to find refuge from growing climate impacts.

“We can now identify the forests we can’t afford to lose if we want to tackle two of the greatest crises facing the planet today: climate change and the loss of biodiversity,” said Dr. Mark Anderson, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Center for Resilient Conservation Science. “Conserving these forests will not only help communities, states, and the nation as a whole meet carbon-reduction goals, but many of the carbon hotspots that were identified also are resilient to climate change and can provide plant and animal species safe places to live as their habitats are altered or destroyed by climate impacts.”

We can now identify the forests we can’t afford to lose if we want to tackle two of the greatest crises facing the planet today: climate change and the loss of biodiversity.

Dr. Mark Anderson Director of Conservation Science

The scientific analysis found that under current conditions, forests across the continental United States would remove up to 865 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year between now and 2050 if they are protected from development, severe wildfire, and other major disturbances. That’s equal to taking approximately 188 million gas-powered cars off the road each year.

The carbon potential numbers identified in the analysis are meant to serve as baselines that land managers can use to determine how future actions and disturbances on forests will affect actual carbon sequestration. For example, many forests particularly in the Western US will fall short of their carbon potential because of wildfire or other disturbances. Conversely, ecological thinning and removing competing vegetation can help forests reach their full carbon storage potential.

The analysis was conducted by Dr. Christopher A. Williams, Ph.D., professor in Clark University’s Graduate School of Geography, along with his team members Dr. Natalia Hasler, and Li Xi also at Clark University in Massachusetts with funding through the U.S. Climate Alliance provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.

Data from the analysis was incorporated into an online mapping tool created by The Nature Conservancy that allows policy makers, land managers, conservation planners, and others to – for the first time ever – zoom in on forested areas across the continental United States as small as one-quarter of an acre to determine how much carbon would be lost into the atmosphere if those forests were destroyed and how much carbon those forests could store over the next 30 years if they continue to grow on their current trajectory.

Having data on the municipal level and other small scales will help improve greenhouse gas accounting, support effective conservation planning, and identify opportunities for small landowners to participate in emerging carbon markets.

Preserving the Most Resilient Lands A team of scientists at The Nature Conservancy has identified and mapped a network of landscapes across the Appalachians and the US that can help create a safe harbor for nature.

This new analysis and visualization offer a powerful tool that can help decision-makers assess carbon in forested landscapes, not only now but into the future.

Christopher A. Williams, Ph.D. Professor in Clark University’s Graduate School of Geography

“Forests in every state are removing millions of metric tons of carbon pollution from the atmosphere,” said Dr. Williams. “This new analysis and visualization offer a powerful tool that can help decision-makers assess carbon in forested landscapes, not only now but into the future, and to factor that into their natural resource and conservation planning.”

Unfortunately, nearly 1 million acres of forest lands are lost across the continental US each year due to development and other uses. That is equivalent to losing more than 100 acres of forests each hour and with them, decades of stored carbon as well as their future ability to store more.

Science led by The Nature Conservancy has shown that natural climate solutions – such as conserving forests, improving soil health, protecting grasslands, and restoring coastal wetlands – are an important part of the climate change solution and have the potential to remove 21% of the America’s carbon pollution.

The new data and online mapping tool show that many of the forests now identified as carbon hotspots – particularly those along the Appalachian Mountains and the Pacific Northwest – also are part of a network of resilient and connected landscapes that contain unique geological and topographical features that create “microclimates” where species can find refuge from climate impacts such as droughts and floods.

Among the areas found to be both carbon hotspots as well as climate refuges for species are forests along Washington state’s Hoh River, the Altamaha River corridor in Georgia, and the Cumberland Forests that span Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Providing the carbon data on the resilient land mapping tool was made possible by generous support from Esri and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.