Forest Atlas Of The United States

Taking Stock
of Carbon

Forests are the most important land use when it comes to the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, sequestering far more carbon than any other land-use on an annual basis. Identifying where forest carbon resides, its status (for example in live biomass or forest floor), and the predicted future of carbon in forests is paramount to managing forests in the context of climate change.

By far, forests sequester more carbon annually than any other land-use (e.g., agriculture). As the current carbon stocks of US forests contain approximately 25 years’ worth of US fossil fuel CO2 emissions at their current rate, the location and condition of these carbon stocks is critical to mitigating the potential effects of future climate change. Most forests across the US have rather stable carbon stocks, with land-use change, mortality (e.g., beetles or drought) and wildfires reducing carbon stocks at local scales. Broadly, US forests are still recovering from the land-use conversion and exploitive harvests of the late 19th and early 20th century. Trends in forest carbon sequestration/emission over the past few centuries demonstrate how rapidly we can lose forest carbon, while at the same time how sustainable management can restore some of those “lost” stocks.

Given the complexity of forest ecosystems, carbon stocks can be broadly delineated among various “pools” such as live tree biomass or deadwood. Living biomass associated with trees and understory components can often account for the majority of carbon in many forests. In contrast, sometimes deadwood and/or organic material in the soil can account for the majority of carbon in forests at high latitudes or coastal areas.

Forest carbon pools can be viewed separately as well. Aboveground live biomass in forests often consists of both live trees and understory vegetation, thus a diverse array of flora that constitutes the largest portion of total forest carbon stocks in many areas of the US.

In contrast, dead wood carbon stocks are typically highest in highly stocked and/or disturbed forest stands where decomposition is slow due to high elevations and/or latitudes.

Lastly, soil organic carbon stocks are typically highest in high quality forest sites in areas with slow decay processes such as the Pacific Northwest and high altitudes and/or elevations.

Although most forests aren’t solely owned or managed for their carbon stocks, it is evident from the quantity and diversity (e.g., soil or vegetation) of forest carbon stocks across the US that every forest activity affects emission and/or sequestration of carbon dioxide thus playing a role in what our future climate will be.

explore EXPLORE. Explore these maps and discover what forest carbon pool is dominant in your state.

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