Published: Thursday, August 04, 2011, 4:53 PM
By Brandon Blakeley, The Oregonian
A near halt to logging in the Northwest's federal forests has left a lot of trees standing in the past two decades, and a new study shows a robust forest can help combat climate change by trapping carbon dioxide emissions. And it soaks up more than we knew.
Researchers from the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State University show for the first time just how much carbon unharvested Northwest forests can trap. These forests now constitute a carbon "sink" for the first time in decades.
The controversial 1993 Northwest Forest Plan, aimed at preserving the endangered northern spotted owl, slashed timber production by 80 percent in northern California, and western Oregon and Washington. While the upshot of the plan remains hotly debated, an unanticipated side effect isn't: Powerful forest "sinks" store the carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion for heat, transportation and power generation.
"The original goals of the Northwest Forest Plan had nothing to do with the issue of carbon emissions, but now carbon sequestration is seen as an important ecosystem service," David Turner, a professor in the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society who led the research, said in a press release covering the research.
In previous work, Turner and colleagues found that carbon sequestration in Oregon forests balances almost half the carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion by state residents.
This newest forest research dovetails with other recent reports that highlight ecosystem damage caused by ocean acidification, a result of increased atmospheric carbon.
Researchers from The University of California at Davis reported in mid-July that more acidic oceans could weaken the shells of California mussels and diminish their size. Other reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate coral is at increasing risk. More acidic conditions greatly slow coral growth and accelerate coral bleaching, often leading to death. Coral reefs shelter a quarter of all marine species. Economically, NOAA estimates coral reefs' worth at up to $375 billion a year when coastline protection, fishing and tourism are added up. By holding carbon, trees pitch in to help oceans and marine life.
Turner's study helps put a number on the carbon value of Northwest forests. While trees alone are not the solution to climate change, it appears they can slow the pace because they handle more carbon than expected. It changes the equation for figuring out the best use of the forest.