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Carbon Storage in Trees

By Maria Young, Forestry Intern

You may have learned about the water cycle in school, but did you know that there is also a carbon cycle? Your woodlands play an essential role in the carbon cycle, the natural process by which carbon is used, stored, and released into the atmosphere.

The amount of carbon on earth is always the same because our earth is a closed system when it comes to nutrients. The only component of the carbon cycle that changes is the location of the carbon in our atmosphere. Trees are the most reliable and natural carbon sequestration system we have. They take up carbon dioxide and water from the atmosphere, convert it to sugars using sunlight, and release oxygen as a byproduct in a process known as photosynthesis. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, an acre of mature trees absorbs—in just a single year—the amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) produced by a car driven 26,000 miles. With the increasing concern of climate change due to greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, the ability of trees to keep carbon out of the atmosphere is more important than ever.

Even when a tree dies, the carbon they stored in their trunk and roots is not released all at once.For example, an average pine tree lives up to 200 years, sequestering carbon the whole time. Once a tree dies, the carbon is slowly released into the atmosphere as the tree decomposes. According to Northern Woodlands, it can take up to 69 years for the average hardwood tree to decompose fully, and up to 80 years for an average conifer tree to do the same.

As a woodland owner, you are also an essential part of the carbon cycle. You have the power to preserve and protect your woodland in a way that will allow the carbon cycle to continue on. For example, it’s important to ensure new trees can grow as the old trees die by making sure your older and taller trees do not completely block sunlight from reaching the forest floor.

There are three harvesting options that can help:

  • Selection cutting is a type of harvest in which your forest is surveyed to determine the sunlight requirements of your trees. The old growth trees that are near trees that require full sunlight to grow will be cut down, whereas old growth trees that are near trees that are shade tolerant will remain.

  • If all the trees in your forest require full sunlight to grow, however, a clear cut may be your best option to encourage regeneration.

  • The third harvesting option is shelterwood harvesting, where your old growth trees are cut down in increments over time to allow new trees to regenerate. Once your new growth trees have come in, the rest of your old growth trees can be harvested.

For additional information on carbon storage in trees, tree harvesting, and more, view the resources below or contact us on our page!

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