No truer words have been spoken than when ecologist Frank Egler said, “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think.”
“This should lead us to be cautious, and a little bit humble (former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas).”
Forests are attached to us in ways that far exceed our understanding. They not only provide us a place to connect with nature and find solace, but also play an integral role in the carbon cycle – a cycle that is fundamental to our survival and for everything around us.
But how does that affect you? Of the people you work with every day or meet as customers, visitors, or partners? They may care about forests, but they don’t depend on forests, do they? They are most interested about getting somewhere, usually in cars, or doing something with family and friends usually in their homes. What do forests and carbon have to do with them?
A quick primer on the carbon cycle. Carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. Most of it is stored in rocks; the rest can be found in the ocean, atmosphere, plants, soil, and fossil fuels. Because the Earth is a dynamic system, carbon is on the move and flows between each of these reservoirs at various rates. Wildfire, for example, releases carbon from plants and soil to the atmosphere.
Forests serve an important role in sequestering or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and today, their role is even more important because of climate change.
Human activities are contributing to climate change through activities such as burning fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gasses into the atmosphere, causing an increase in global average temperatures along with increases in ocean temperatures, acidity and sea level. Carbon dioxide uptake by forests in the contiguous US offsets about 12 percent of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions each year.
The forests of the US store carbon equal to about 168 billion metric tons of CO2, about 132 years’ worth of total emissions from autos in the US or 176 years of home electricity use. NFS lands support one – fifth of the Nation’s total forest land area and contain 26% of the total carbon stored in U.S. forests (excluding interior Alaska). These forests store the equivalent of 43 billion tons of CO2 worth about 33 years of auto emissions or 45 years of home electricity use. All of this storage is the net sequestration of existing forests and the addition through planting and natural regeneration.
To break this down even further, on a per acre basis, NFS lands contain approximately 78 metric tons of carbon. This is equal to annual emissions of 60 passenger vehicles OR electricity use of 43 homes. There is about a half an acre of National forest for every one of the 314 million people in the US, about 1.4 acres – a football field and a half – for every one of the 114 million households in the US.
NFS forest lands sequester about 147 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. This amount removed from the atmosphere is equivalent to 31 million passenger vehicles (about 12% of all vehicles) OR electricity use of 22 million homes (about 15% of the total). The total forest area of the US sequesters enough new CO2 to account for 71 million homes (50%) or 99 million vehicles (about 37 % of the total). Quite a saving!
Forests are the solution to absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and regulating temperatures. We must take an active role in keeping, planting, and respecting forests for all they provide for us such as carbon, wood, flood control, wildlife habitat, and all the rest. Even those of us who mainly think about cars and houses and all that goes on with them should not forget about forests. Approximately, 50.5 acres of NFS lands are required to offset the yearly emissions of one American household.
Forests keep working for us, capturing carbon and providing a lot of other services, even after we have taken the key from the ignition and turned off the lights at home. At the Forest Service, we take a balanced approach to sustainably managing for these benefits. Forest ecosystems are more complex than we think – let’s not forget that. And take care of them so they can keep on taking care of us.
This "Message from Dave" was originally published in the USDA's newsletter, "Engaging a Climate Ready Agency," which can be found here.