This website is the digital version of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, produced in collaboration with the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

For the official version, please refer to the PDF in the downloads section. The downloadable PDF is the official version of the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

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Welcome to the National Climate Assessment

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Forest Carbon Sequestration and Carbon Management

From the onset of European settlement to the start of the last century, changes in U.S. forest cover due to expansion of agriculture, tree harvests, and settlements resulted in net emissions of carbon.5,6 More recently, with forests reoccupying land previously used for agriculture, technological advances in harvesting, and changes in forest management, U.S. forests and associated wood products now serve as a substantial carbon sink, capturing and storing more than 227.6 million tons of carbon per year.7 The amount of carbon taken up by U.S. land is dominated by forests (Figure 7.5), which have annually absorbed 7% to 24% of fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the U.S. over the past two decades. The best estimate is that forests and wood products stored about 16% (833 teragrams, or 918.2 million short tons, of CO2 equivalent in 2011) of all the CO2 emitted annually by fossil fuel burning in the United States (see also “Estimating the U.S. Carbon Sink” in Ch. 15: Biogeochemical Cycles).7

The future role of U.S. forests in the carbon cycle will be affected by climate change through changes in disturbances (see Figures 7.3 and 7.4), as well as shifts in tree species, ranges, and productivity (Figure 7.6).8,6 Economic factors will affect any future carbon cycle of forests, as the age class and condition of forests are affected by the acceleration of harvesting,9,10 land-use changes such as urbanization,4 changes in forest types,11 and bioenergy development.4,12,13,14

Figure 7.5: Forest Growth Provides an Important Carbon Sink Forest Growth Provides an Important Carbon Sink Details/Download

Efforts in forestry to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels have focused on forest management and forest product use. Forest management strategies include land-use change to increase forest area (afforestation) and/or to avoid deforestation and optimizing carbon management in existing forests. Forest product-use strategies include the use of wood wherever possible as a structural substitute for steel and concrete, which require more carbon emissions to produce.6 The carbon emissions offset from using wood rather than alternate materials for a range of applications can be two or more times the carbon content of the product.15

In the U.S., afforestation (active establishment or planting of forests) has the potential to capture and store a maximum of 225 million tons of additional carbon per year from 2010 to 21109,16 (an amount almost equivalent to the current annual carbon storage in forests). Tree and shrub encroachment into grasslands, rangelands, and savannas provides a large potential carbon sink that could exceed half of what existing U.S. forests capture and store annually.16

Expansion of urban and suburban areas is responsible for much of the current and expected loss of U.S. forestland, although these human-dominated areas often have extensive tree cover and potential carbon storage (see also Ch. 13: Land Use & Land Cover Change).4 In addition, the increasing prevalence of extreme conditions that encourage wildfires can convert some forests to shrublands and meadows17 or permanently reduce the amount of carbon stored in existing forests if fires occur more frequently.18,19

Figure 7.6: Forests and Carbon Forests and Carbon Details/Download

Carbon management on existing forests can include practices that increase forest growth, such as fertilization, irrigation, switching to fast-growing planting stock, shorter rotations, and weed, disease, and insect control.20,21,22,23,24,25 In addition, forest management can increase average forest carbon stocks by increasing the interval between harvests, by decreasing harvest intensity, or by focused density/species management.26,27,28,29,30,31,32 Since 1990, CO2 emissions from wildland forest fires in the lower 48 United States have averaged about 67 million tons of carbon per year.33,3 While forest management practices can reduce on-site carbon stocks, they may also help reduce future climate change by providing feedstock material for bioenergy production and by possibly avoiding future, potentially larger, wildfire emissions through fuel treatments (Figure 7.2).1

References

  1. Albaugh, T. J., L. H. Allen, B. R. Zutter, and H. E. Quicke, 2003: Vegetation control and fertilization in midrotation Pinus taeda stands in the southeastern United States. Annals of Forest Science, 60, 619-624, doi:10.1051/forest:2003054. | Detail

  2. Albaugh, T. J., L. H. Allen, P. M. Dougherty, and K. H. Johnsen, 2004: Long term growth responses of loblolly pine to optimal nutrient and water resource availability. Forest Ecology and Management, 192, 3-19, doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2004.01.002. | Detail

  3. Allen, H. L., 2008: Ch. 6: Silvicultural treatments to enhance productivity. The Forests Handbook, Volume 2: Applying Forest Science for Sustainable Management, J. Evans, Ed., Blackwell Science Ltd, 129-139. | Detail

  4. Amishev, D. Y., and T. R. Fox, 2006: The effect of weed control and fertilization on survival and growth of four pine species in the Virginia Piedmont. Forest Ecology and Management, 236, 93-101, doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2006.08.339. | Detail

  5. Balboa-Murias, M. Á., R. Rodríguez-Soalleiro, A. Merino, and J. G. Á. lvarez-González, 2006: Temporal variations and distribution of carbon stocks in aboveground biomass of radiata pine and maritime pine pure stands under different silvicultural alternatives. Forest Ecology and Management, 237, 29-38, doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2006.09.024. | Detail

  6. Balshi, M. S., A. D. McGuire, P. Duffy, M. Flannigan, D. W. Kicklighter, and J. Melillo, 2009: Vulnerability of carbon storage in North American boreal forests to wildfires during the 21st century. Global Change Biology, 15, 1491-1510, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2009.01877.x. | Detail

  7. Birdsey, R., K. Pregitzer, and A. Lucier, 2006: Forest carbon management in the United States: 1600–2100. Journal of Environmental Quality, 35, 1461–1469, doi:10.2134/jeq2005.0162. | Detail

  8. Borders, B. E., R. E. Will, D. Markewitz, A. Clark, R. Hendrick, R. O. Teskey, and Y. Zhang, 2004: Effect of complete competition control and annual fertilization on stem growth and canopy relations for a chronosequence of loblolly pine plantations in the lower coastal plain of Georgia. Forest Ecology and Management, 192, 21-37, doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2004.01.003. URL | Detail

  9. CCSP, 2007: The First State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR): The North American Carbon Budget and Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. U.S. Climate Change Science Program Synthesis and Assessment Product 2.2. A.W. King, L. Dilling, G.P. Zimmerman, D.M. Fairman, R.A. Houghton, G.H. Marland, A.Z. Rose, and T.J. Wilbanks, Eds. U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 242 pp. URL | Detail

  10. Choi, S. W., B. Sohngen, and R. Alig, 2011: An assessment of the influence of bioenergy and marketed land amenity values on land uses in the Midwestern US. Ecological Economics, 70, 713-720, doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2010.11.005. | Detail

  11. Daigneault, A., B. Sohngen, and R. Sedjo, 2012: An economic approach to assess the forest carbon implications of biomass energy. Environmental Science & Technology, 46, 5664-5671, doi:10.1021/es2030142. | Detail

  12. Dale, V. H., M. L. Tharp, K. O. Lannom, and D. G. Hodges, 2010: Modeling transient response of forests to climate change. Science of The Total Environment, 408, 1888-1901, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2009.11.050. | Detail

  13. DOE, 2011: U.S. Billion-Ton Update: Biomass Supply for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry. ORNL/TM-2011-224. 227 pp., U.S. Department of Energy, Office of the Biomass Program, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN. URL | Detail

  14. EPA, 2005: Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential in U.S. Forestry and Agriculture. EPA 430-R-05-006. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C. | Detail

  15. EPA, 2009: Ch. 7: Land use, land-use change, and forestry. Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2007,, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 268-332. URL | Detail

  16. EPA, 2013: Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2011. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C. URL | Detail

  17. EPA, 2013: Annex 3.12. Methodology for estimating net carbon stock changes in forest land remaining forest lands. Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2011. EPA 430-R-13-001,, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, A-254 - A-303. URL | Detail

  18. Goodale, C. L., M. J. Apps, R. A. Birdsey, C. B. Field, L. S. Heath, R. A. Houghton, J. C. Jenkins, G. H. Kohlmaier, W. Kurz, S. Liu, S. Liu, G. - J. Nabuurs, S. Nilsson, and A. Z. Shvidenko, 2002: Forest carbon sinks in the Northern Hemisphere. Ecological Applications, 12, 891-899, doi:10.1890/1051-0761(2002)012[0891:FCSITN]2.0.CO;2. | Detail

  19. Harden, J. W., S. E. Trumbore, B. J. Stocks, A. Hirsch, S. T. Gower, K. P. O'Neill, and E. S. Kasischke, 2000: The role of fire in the boreal carbon budget. Global Change Biology, 6, 174-184, doi:10.1046/j.1365-2486.2000.06019.x. URL | Detail

  20. Harmon, M. E., and B. Marks, 2002: Effects of silvicultural practices on carbon stores in Douglas-fir-western hemlock forests in the Pacific Northwest, U.S.A.: Results from a simulation model. Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 32, 863-877, doi:10.1139/x01-216. URL | Detail

  21. Harmon, M. E., A. Moreno, and J. B. Domingo, 2009: Effects of partial harvest on the carbon stores in Douglas-fir/western hemlock forests: A simulation study. Ecosystems, 12, 777-791, doi:10.1007/s10021-009-9256-2. | Detail

  22. Jiang, H., M. J. Apps, C. Peng, Y. Zhang, and J. Liu, 2002: Modelling the influence of harvesting on Chinese boreal forest carbon dynamics. Forest Ecology and Management, 169, 65-82, doi:10.1016/S0378-1127(02)00299-2. | Detail

  23. Kaipainen, T., J. Liski, A. Pussinen, and T. Karjalainen, 2004: Managing carbon sinks by changing rotation length in European forests. Environmental Science & Policy, 7, 205-219, doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2004.03.001. | Detail

  24. McKinley, D. C., M. G. Ryan, R. A. Birdsey, C. P. Giardina, M. E. Harmon, L. S. Heath, R. A. Houghton, R. B. Jackson, J. F. Morrison, B. C. Murray, D. E. Pataki, and K. E. Skog, 2011: A synthesis of current knowledge on forests and carbon storage in the United States. Ecological Applications, 21, 1902-1924, doi:10.1890/10-0697.1. URL | Detail

  25. Nilsson, U., and H. L. Allen, 2003: Short-and long-term effects of site preparation, fertilization and vegetation control on growth and stand development of planted loblolly pine. Forest Ecology and Management, 175, 367-377, doi:10.1016/S0378-1127(02)00140-8. URL | Detail

  26. Running, S. W., R. R. Nemani, F. A. Heinsch, M. Zhao, M. Reeves, and H. Hashimoto, 2004: A continuous satellite-derived measure of global terrestrial primary production. BioScience, 54, 547-560, doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2004)054[0547:ACSMOG]2.0.CO;2. URL | Detail

  27. Sathre, R., and J. O’Connor, 2010: Meta-analysis of greenhouse gas displacement factors of wood product substitution. Environmental Science & Policy, 13, 104-114, doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2009.12.005. | Detail

  28. Seely, B., C. Welham, and H. Kimmins, 2002: Carbon sequestration in a boreal forest ecosystem: Results from the ecosystem simulation model, FORECAST. Forest Ecology and Management, 169, 123-135, doi:10.1016/S0378-1127(02)00303-1. | Detail

  29. Sohngen, B., and S. Brown, 2006: The influence of conversion of forest types on carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services in the South Central United States. Ecological Economics, 57, 698-708, doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2005.06.001. | Detail

  30. USFS, 2012: Future of America’s forest and rangelands: 2010 Resources Planning Act assessment. General Technical Report WO-87. 198 pp., U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, D.C. URL | Detail

  31. Vose, J. M., D. L. Peterson, and T. Patel-Weynand, 2012: Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the U.S. Forest Sector. General Technical Report PNW-GTR-870. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, 265 pp. URL | Detail

  32. Westerling, A. L., M. G. Turner, E. A. H. Smithwick, W. H. Romme, and M. G. Ryan, 2011: Continued warming could transform Greater Yellowstone fire regimes by mid-21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 13165-13170, doi:10.1073/pnas.1110199108. URL http://www.pnas.org/content/108/32/13165.full.pdf | Detail

  33. Woodall, C. W., K. Skog, J. E. Smith, and C. H. Perry, 2011: Maintenance of forest contribution to global carbon cycles (criterion 5). National Report on Sustainable Forests -- 2010. FS-979, II-59 - II-65. URL | Detail

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

United States Global Change Research Program logo United States Global Change Research Program participating agency logos