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Logs sit on a log truck

Everything. Everywhere. All at once.

In a nutshell, that’s carbon (bonus: even that nutshell has carbon).

In its simplest form, carbon is a building block. It’s a natural element that is the fourth-most abundant element on the planet. It can combine with other elements to form molecules, which create the basic building blocks of life on this planet. Carbon also combines with gases, such as CO2, methane and fossil fuels.

This is where things get tricky, because “carbon,” when used in the context of forest benefits, is actually referring to carbon dioxide. When we discuss an action’s carbon footprint, or we refer to the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere, we’re talking about CO2.

Perhaps the umbrella covering all of this is the carbon cycle—the natural process of carbon moving from the atmosphere to the earth and then back into the atmosphere. Human activities can disrupt this process, but we can also enhance it. Forests play a key role in pulling CO2 out of the air and storing the carbon in wood. And, when we use this wood to make products and plant more trees, we’re helping to offset the carbon produced by actions such as burning fossil fuels.

But there are specific portions of this cycle that are still unknown—and this is where scientists at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources come in. There is much to be learned about the carbon content in soils, updated management practices to better consider carbon, what’s lost when windstorms remove trees from the landscape and the role alternative fuels can have on CO2 emissions. These, and more, are the ways Warnell is helping the world better understand and calculate the role of carbon in forest systems.

A recent publication by the Forest-Climate Working Group outlines ways policymakers can help grow the powerful climate solutions that are America’s forests, and many of their goals are directly supported by research now undertaken at Warnell. By developing processes to analyze land use and land cover, we can work to maintain and expand forestland. Through improved silviculture practices and calculations, we can grow more resilient forests. And by studying and working with new materials, such as mass timber or fuels, we can encourage growth in the markets for these products.

For the ones doing the work, the future looks bright.

“I’m very much hopeful because of the way things are progressing,” said Asiful Alam, a doctoral student studying carbon changes after hurricanes. “We’re doing the research, and there is more investment from companies and federal agencies. I’m very much hopeful that something will come out of it.”

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