Archives For carbon sequestration

Embracing Trees for Our Future

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  July 13, 2015 — 1 Comment

If you spot a Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer wrapping their arms around a tree trunk this summer, don’t be surprised—what looks like a loving hug is actually a scientific measurement in process.

Using a specially designed tape measure, volunteers are recording the diameter of each tree before calculating the amount of carbon dioxide it stores. The study, launched by the Living Plant Documentation department five years ago, records the amount of the pervasive greenhouse gas stored by the Garden’s trees. The research team is interested in determining which trees are able to hold the most carbon for the longest amount of time.

PHOTO: Boyce Tankersley is researching the trees' response to increased carbon in the atmosphere, using data such as the growth rate of the particular tree species.

Boyce Tankersley and volunteers measure the diameter of each tree on the Garden campus.

The Tall and Short of It

It is one of the first such studies underway in a botanic garden setting. “We know carbon is increasing but we don’t have the numbers on how much carbon is being locked up by the urban forest,” said Boyce Tankersley, director of the Living Plant Documentation department. “This is where the Garden can play a role.”

Although similar studies have been completed by the lumber industry and others, it is important to understand how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are mitigated by cultivated trees, explained Tankersley. It’s also essential to document how those trees fare long term in evolving conditions.

The Garden has an especially diverse number of taxa, Tankersley said, positioning it perfectly to document how numerous species behave in locations from the McDonald Woods to the English Walled Garden to the parking lot. “The Garden is among the first to look at the trees in a Garden setting and at the diversity of taxa,” said Tankersley. “That’s a piece we’d like to shed more light on.”

This summer marks the second time the trees have been measured since the original data was gathered in the first year. Measurements will continue to be taken for another 15 to 20 years.

“We hope, when the data is analyzed, to be able to identify not only the trees that are best but the Garden settings that support their efforts in this regard,” anticipated Tankersley.

PHOTO: Tree canopy.

The Living Plant Documentation department is calculating the amount of carbon dioxide stored in each of the Garden’s trees.

Deep in the Woods

Trees are lauded for coming to our rescue in the face of climate change, but scientists have learned that these strapping heroes may not be infallible. “One thing we are looking for is the influence of carbon on the growth rate,” said Tankersley. His research team is paying close attention to the trees’ response to increased carbon levels in our atmosphere.

According to Tankersley, it has been documented that trees are growing more quickly than they have in the past, which comes with positive and negative repercussions. “Trees are providing an environmental service in a major way by absorbing carbon, but there’s a point of diminishing returns,” he explained. The wood of a fast-growing tree is softer, for example, which has a negative impact on the lumber industry, he explained. In addition, “with an increased growth rate, you also get increased susceptibility to insects and diseases.”

The concern underscores the need to observe the Garden’s trees for many years to take all such factors into consideration.

In addition, the team is watching the impact of weather on the trees, and taking dry spells or rainy periods, for example, into account when documenting tree growth over a given time frame. The Garden hosts a National Weather Service monitor on-site, which allows for weather-related calculations to be even more precise.

The Zipline

When the measurement phase of the study is complete, Tankersley plans to provide the data to a doctoral student in the Garden’s joint degree program with Northwestern University for formal analysis. “My take-home would be a list of the six best trees, perennials, and shrubs for sequestering carbon in the landscape in Chicago,” he said.

“We expect to find that trees like oaks, elms, and hickories—trees that are long-lived—provide a greater environmental service in this regard,” he added.

For homeowners who would like to assist with the issue now rather than wait for the final analysis, he suggests that they begin planting longer-lived trees. It may help mitigate, or reduce, the amount of carbon in the air and resulting climate change impacts such as extreme weather.

Our 2013 adaptive planting study carefully selected 60 suitable trees to plant for future generations. View the full list of suggested trees here.
PHOTO: Fastigiate English Oak acorns (Quercus robur).

It takes more than one year for the Garden volunteers to check the diameter of the 13,493 trees on-site, and enter the estimated carbon storage into a specialized database. The calculations are made using a formula developed by the U.S. Forest Service, said Tankersley.

The technique of measuring existing trees and planning for new plantings is something Tankersley hopes will have broad impact. He has already shared his process with countries in Africa through The Eden Projects and in China in an effort to help governments replace denuded forests there.

Tankersley is hopeful about the long-term implications of the study. After all, he said, when pioneers first came to the United States, they found oak trees that were about 300 years old, and had been providing benefits such as carbon sequestration for all of that time. Many of those hard-working, long-lived species have been a key part of our natural heritage since the beginning. By embracing the issue now, Tankersley and team have cleared the way for trees and their vital functions to endure.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Another Reason to Battle Buckthorn

Enhancing carbon storage through woodland restoration

Dan Larkin —  August 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

As plant enthusiasts, we often focus on how plants are affected by their environments. Their growth is affected by weather, water, nutrients, etc. But the plant-environment relationship is a two-way street, and plants can have a strong influence on the habitats they live in. We might experience this by walking in a forest and feeling ground beneath our feet that is spongy from the buildup of slowly decaying leaves that accumulated over decades or centuries. The trees in such a forest have “engineered” their environments, changing the very ground beneath them in ways that are beneficial to other plants, to animals, and to ecosystem functioning.

Unfortunately, we can also experience negative engineering effects of plants on their environments when we visit natural areas throughout the Chicago region and beyond that have been heavily invaded by the nonnative common or European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). Buckthorn was brought to the Midwest for ornamental use—it’s great at making hedges—but escaped from human control and is now one of our region’s worst invasive species. As its hedge-producing credentials suggest, buckthorn is good at forming dense, shady thickets. These thickets have been shown to harm native plants and wildlife and to change physical, chemical, and soil conditions where they occur. Where there once may have been an open oak woodland underlain by a thick carpet of grasses, sedges, and wildflowers, we now often see an uninviting tangle of shrubs with little other than bare soil beneath them.

This contrast, between an environment that looks like this

Buckthorn removal has opened this area up and ongoing management restored a robust understory of native vegetation. Photo: Jim Steffen

An open-canopied patch of woodland with robust growth of native vegetation in the understory (Photo: Jim Steffen)

 

…and one that looks like this

Buckthorn-dominated area; there is almost no vegetation beneath it. Photo: Jim Steffen

Buckthorn-dominated area showing a lack of understory vegetation (Photo: Jim Steffen)

…got me and my colleague Jim Steffen wondering whether the ability of woodlands to perform carbon-storage ecosystem services could be impaired by buckthorn invasion. If so, could restoring impacted habitats back to native woodland vegetation return these services? Some background: Ecosystem services are essentially benefits nature provides to humans (e.g., clean air and drinking water, food, and other resources). Sequestering carbon—removing it from the atmosphere where it contributes to global climate change and instead locking it away harmlessly for potentially hundreds of years—is one such service.

Steffen’s more than two decades of work removing buckthorn from the Garden’s Mary Mix McDonald Woods and restoring native plant species had created the natural, long-term experiment we needed to answer these questions. We had access to areas still dominated by buckthorn for use as control treatments and patches of restored woodland of various ages that had previously been dominated by buckthorn (this is called a “restoration chronosequence”). And we had human capital to put to work: Rachel (Hesselink) Gentile and Chad Zirbel, who participated in the Garden’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (funded by the National Science Foundation) in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Gentile and Zirbel, in turn, mentored College First high school students Alan Lane and Kassandra Altantulkhuur.

So why did we think that buckthorn’s engineering of its environment might reduce carbon storage? Why not increase it? Mainly because of all the missed opportunities for carbon sequestration represented by the vegetation that buckthorn displaces: countless individuals of hundreds of species of understory plants, plants that make their living by drawing in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. During photosynthesis, this captured CO2 is transformed into plant biomass, which occurs largely underground, in a complex tangle of fine, deeply penetrating roots that interact with the soil to produce tough, carbon-based compounds that are very slow to cycle back to the atmosphere. Not incidentally, all of these living understory plants and their deceased brethren (dead plant material is called “litter”) could help stabilize the soil, so that captured carbon would be less likely to wash away in thunderstorms and spring thaws.

What did we find? That buckthorn-dominated areas were indeed bad at storing carbon and that restored areas got better as they got older. Restored patches had lower rates of erosion and higher concentrations of persistent organic carbon in their soil. As restored areas matured, their vegetation continued to rebound, with plant diversity and litter biomass increasing over time. This maturation of the plant community was matched by steady increases in soil-carbon accumulation.

But wait, what about those thickets we see? Surely all that wood must be good for storing carbon? Not so much. We calculated wood biomass by measuring hundreds of trees. Even though restoration involved cutting down a lot of buckthorn, it actually led to a net increase in wood biomass, an increase that was also positively correlated with restoration age. Buckthorn’s thickets may look impressive, but its trunks and branches are puny compared to most trees, there is (almost) “no there there.” We think that taking out buckthorn may have freed native trees that can really get big, like white and red oaks, to better reach their growth potential.

In addition to the well-recognized benefits to biodiversity from active, long-term woodland restoration, our work and that of other scientists shows that there can also be tangible benefits to society. You can learn more about this research in our manuscript recently published in the journal Restoration Ecology. And you can expect to see further interesting work from Gentile (now pursuing a Ph.D. in ecology at Notre Dame), Zirbel (pursuing his Ph.D. in ecology at Michigan State), Lane (an undergraduate at DePaul University), and Altantulkhuur (attending the University of Illinois at Chicago).


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org