Author: Chelsea Chandler | Published: June 9, 2017
Even though global warming is a politically polarizing topic, it’s worth considering some areas of common ground—both figuratively and literally—when it comes to how we manage the carbon dioxide (CO2) that we’re releasing into the atmosphere. Natural carbon storage, for instance, is a win-win for Wisconsin’s citizens, our land, and the global climate, and the type of common sense solution we can all get behind.
To understand natural carbon storage, it’s important to recognize that carbon naturally cycles between different reservoirs on the planet: the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, and geosphere. We can think of it like a budget: the carbon stored in one place generally offsets carbon naturally emitted in another place, creating a sort of carbon equilibrium. However, too much carbon moving into any one of these reservoirs—especially the atmosphere and oceans—can wreak havoc on this delicate balance.
Carbon overload happens when we have too much input from sources, and not enough capacity in sinks in which to store the carbon. Since the Industrial Revolution, scientists have measured more and more CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere through the burning of hydrocarbons long-stored as fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Meanwhile, by removing and degrading important ecosystems that act as carbon sinks, such as forests cleared for lumber and prairies converted to farmland or urban use, we diminish our capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Just as humans can manage the sources of CO2 we add to the atmosphere, we can also play a big role in managing carbon sinks that can take up and store CO2. Forests, for instance, are important biological sinks in which carbon is stored long-term in wood and soil. Sustainably managing forestlands and working to preserve large tracts of forests are two ways in which we can help to decrease levels of atmospheric carbon.
Prairies, where the majority of carbon storage is in the soil, were once massive biological carbon sinks. However, the USGS reports that since 1830, tallgrass prairie in Wisconsin has decreased over 99%, greatly diminishing our capacity for capturing carbon. In addition to preventing further agricultural or urban land conversion, landowners can help increase our natural carbon storage capacity by working to restore prairies, forests, and wetlands.
Farmers are active land stewards. It is in their best interest to sustain the soil because it in turn sustains them. More than many other professions, farmers are intimately linked to long-term changes in the weather. When someone makes a living off the land—and provides food and resources essential to others—long-term thinking is about sustainability in every sense of the word. Many farmers are already implementing common sense land management practices for storing more carbon, though there are many other opportunities. We’re only currently tapping about 10% of the soil carbon storage potential in U.S. cropland, and there’s a lot more we can do to maintain health of our environment, locally and globally.