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Forest carbon

Carbon storage

The storage of carbon in forested landscapes, in the form of plant and soil biomass, is a crucial component of climate change mitigation. Carbon pulled from the atmosphere by growing plants, then held in forest ecosystems, is not free contribute to the warming effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas. Appalachian forests provide this service in great abundance, and net carbon storage has increased over recent decades in most Appalachian regions as forests have matured and increased in landscape extent.

However, the rate of this increase is declining as the dynamics of these processes change with changing land use patterns. As older forests continue to age, the rate of new carbon sequestration naturally slows, but these forests continue to store massive amounts of carbon. Urbanization and surface mining, in different Appalachian regions, are major factors driving recent patterns of forest loss. Future economic and land use scenarios suggest that in coming decades, forest losses from urbanization and surface mining are likely to outstrip regional gains from forest growth, at which point some major Appalachian regions could become carbon sources rather than sinks. Such losses may be mitigated by changes in urban development policy and planning, significant new forest restoration efforts on mined sites, changing energy markets and policy, and timber markets that enhance the value of forest lands.

Risk factors: Urbanization, surface mining, climate change


Amichev, B. Y., J. A. Burger, and J. A. Rodrigue. 2008. Carbon sequestration by forests and soils on mined land in the Midwestern and Appalachian coalfields of the U.S. Forest Ecology and Management 256(11): 1949-1959.

Brzostek, E. R., D. Dragoni, H. P. Schmid, A. F. Rahman, D. Sims, C. A. Wayson, D. J. Johnson, and R. P. Phillips. 2014. Chronic water stress reduces tree growth and the carbon sink of deciduous hardwood forests. Global Change Biology 20(8): 2531-2539.

Campbell, J. E., J. F. Fox, and P. M. Acton. 2012. Terrestrial carbon losses from mountaintop coal mining offset regional forest carbon sequestration in the 21st century. Environmental Research Letters 7(4): 045701.

Coulston, J. W., D. N. Wear, and J. M. Vose. 2015. Complex forest dynamics indicate potential for slowing carbon accumulation in the southeastern United States. Scientific Reports 5: 8002.

Fox, J. F., P. Acton, and J. E. Campbell. 2014. Carbon and mountaintop mining. BioScience 64(2): 81.

Huggett, R., D. Wear, R. Li, J. Coulston, and S. Liu. 2013. Forecasts of forest conditions, Chapter 5, 73-101. In D. N. Wear and J. G. Greis, editors, The Southern Forest Futures Project: Technical Report. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-178, USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station: 542 pp.

Wear, D. N., R. Huggett, R. Li, B. Perryman, and S. Liu. 2013. Forecasts of forest conditions in regions of the United States under future scenarios: a technical document supporting the Forest Service 2012 RPA Assessment. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-GTR-170. USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station: 101 pp.

Wear, D. N., J. Prestemon, R. Huggett, and D. Carter. 2013. Markets, Chapter 9, 183-212. In D. N. Wear and J. G. Greis, editors, The Southern Forest Futures Project: Technical Report. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-178, USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station: 542 pp.

Wickham, J., P. B. Wood, M. C. Nicholson, W. Jenkins, D. Druckenbrod, G. W. Suter, M. P. Strager, C. Mazzarella, W. Galloway, and J. Amos. 2013. The overlooked terrestrial impacts of mountaintop mining. BioScience 63(5): 335-348.

Zipper, C., J. Burger, J. McGrath, and B. Amichev. 2007. Carbon accumulation potentials of post-SMCRA coal-mined lands, 962-980. In Proceedings of a Joint Conference of the American Society of Mining and Reclamation 24th Annual National Conference, June 2-7, 2007, Gillette, Wyoming.

Zipper, C., J. Burger, J. Skousen, P. Angel, C. Barton, V. Davis, and J. Franklin. 2011. Restoring forests and associated ecosystem services on Appalachian coal surface mines. Environmental Management 47(5): 751-765.