The loss of late successional species has a disproportionate impact on terrestrial carbon storage in North America

Monday, December 14, 2015 - 11:00 to 11:10
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Annually, terrestrial vegetation absorbs more than 10 times the amount of carbon released by human activities, but the degree to which this contributed to net removal of carbon from the atmosphere depends on how much carbon uptake is allocated to long-lived pools. A significant fraction of carbon taken up by forests is allocated to wood where it is effectively removed from the atmosphere for the duration of the tree’s life. In this study we derive forest biomass for the Upper Midwest USA from historical records of tree distribution and size and compare it to published values for old growth forests and also modern forest biomass in the same region. Our estimates of pre-settlement biomass are lower than small scale studies in the published literature. Despite this, we find substantial losses in forest biomass since European settlement, often associated with the loss of large, long lived conifers. The mean life span of tree species in pre-industrial forests was greater than on the modern landscape and that this change is strongly influenced by the loss of long lived, late successional tree species like Tsuga canadensis. Regrowth of forest cleared during the expansion of Europeans across the North American continent had led to net carbon sequestration over the past century. However, because land use change and subsequent land use policies have not permitted the recovery of long lived, late successional species, it is unclear whether pre-industrial forest carbon stocks will recover.