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USGS Releases Carbon Sequestration Study

Flint Hills Natl Scenic Byway TravelKS
Great Plains prairielands like Flint Hills, Kansas act as carbon sinks (Image: TravelKS via Flickr)

No member of Congress attended the international climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, earlier this month, but scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have released the first in a series of groundbreaking studies assessing our nation’s capacity to sequester carbon through natural systems.

Along with limiting emissions, carbon sequestration efforts—the process of removing greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere and containing it—are crucial to securing America’s leadership in the global endeavor to reduce and limit the impacts of climate disruption. Focusing on the Great Plains, USGS’s assessment identifies these grasslands, fields and woodlands as a carbon sink, trapping a level of greenhouse gas pollution equal to 21% of emissions from personal vehicles and 3% of total US emissions.  Looking forward to 2050, USGS scientists project Great Plains carbon storage will increase by anywhere between 29% and 36%.

Maintaining and expanding the ability of the Great Plains to mitigate climate disruption depends on implementing visionary and strong conservation programs. President Obama showed the right kind of leadership last year with his establishment of a 1.1 million acre Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area in Kansas.  This new unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System sets the stage for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand its cooperation with private landowners, state and local governments to conserve a region with critical carbon sequestration capacity and home to over 100 types of grassland birds, along with a rich agricultural heritage.

A second National Wildlife Refuge in the region, the Southern Prairie Pothole in Iowa, also stands to contribute significantly to America’s leadership on sequestering greenhouse gas pollution through conservation in the Great Plains.  Proposed through President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoor’s initiative, this refuge would also conserve important habitat for more than 90 types of birds, habitat that produces approximately 50% of North America’s duck population.  A Southern Prairie Pothole National Wildlife Refuge would also improve flood control efforts, a critical part of America’s climate adaptation strategy.

Congress should not continue avoiding climate change but start accepting responsibility for the future health of our nation.  They can start by fully funding efforts like those conserving the Flint Hills and Southern Prairie Potholes. For his part, President Obama should continue to invoke the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, like he did recently in Kansas with a visionary conservation agenda that conserves more lands, so we can reduce pollution and create a cleaner, more prosperous future for all Americans.


Column by Catherine Semcer, Senior Washington Representative for the Sierra Club.


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