Wild West is a Massive Carbon Sink

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The wilderness of the Wild West absorbs as much carbon per year as 83 million passenger cars release in that time, which is equivalent to five percent of the EPA’s estimate for total greenhouse gas emissions for 2010. A U.S. Geological Survey study found that the forests, grasslands and other ecosystems of the West sequester 100 million tons of carbon per year.

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However, what the western wilderness takes, it also gives away. Wildfires release 13 percent of the estimated amount of carbon stored. A warmer, drier future along with land use changes may increase that amount to 31 percent. Bodies of water in the West release more carbon than fires. Approximately 30 percent of the amount of carbon sequestered is released by lakes, streams and other bodies of water.

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The study area extended from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coastal waters, and totaled more than one million square miles, including the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, the Pacific Northwest forests and the grasslands and shrublands of the Great Basin.

Different ecosystems in the region absorbed different amounts of carbon.

  • Forests: Woodlands were the champs at storing the most carbon per unit area.  They stored 70 percent of the carbon and occupied 28 percent of the land area.
  • Wetlands: Although they sequestered the carbon at the highest rate, they are a rare ecosystem in the deserts and mountains of the West. They occupy only one percent of the area.
  • Grasslands: The American West’s savannahs, prairies and shrublands absorbed 23 percent of the area’s carbon and covered 60 percent of the surface area.
  • Agricultural land: Farms and rangelands covered six percent of the land and stores 4.5 percent of the carbon.

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Great Basin National Park, Nevada (National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons)