October 22, 2019 | By:

WILD CARBON, A synthesis of recent findings

Anderson-Wells property in Lincoln, VT (forever-wild easement by NWT) © Shelby Perry, Stewardship Director, Northeast Wilderness Trust

Since completing this important paper, Northeast Wilderness Trust has launched a Wild Carbon conservation program, to help get Forever Wild protection on more private lands and help stabilize climate. Go to newildernesstrust.org for details. ~ editors

Northeast Wilderness Trust

We find ourselves not at the edge of a precipice, but beyond it. Climate change is altering the world as we know it, no matter how quickly we act to reduce our collective carbon footprint. But the worst impacts are still avoidable with natural climate solutions. Permanently protecting forests and allowing them to grow in landscapes free from direct human manipulation is proving to be one of the most effective and cost efficient methods available to address the climate crisis. While wild nature has a right to exist simply for its intrinsic value, recent science is shedding peer-reviewed light on the exceptional carbon storage capacity of unmanaged land, and its equally important benefits for safeguarding biodiversity. In this short synthesis, ecologist Mark Anderson summarizes recent studies which demonstrate that in our fragmented, fast-developing world, wilderness offers the earth and its community of life the precious gift of time. —Jon Leibowitz, Executive Director, Northeast Wilderness Trust

WILD CARBON A synthesis of recent findings MARK G. ANDERSON, PhD

A long-standing debate over the value of old forests in capturing and storing carbon has prompted a surge of synthesis studies published in top science journals during the last decade. Here are five emerging points that are supported by solid evidence.

  1. Trees accumulate carbon over their entire lifespan. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from air and transform it into carbon-rich sugars. These are then converted to cellulose to create biomass (trunk, bark, leaf) or transferred below-ground to feed the root-fungal networks. Over the long lifespan of the tree, large amounts of carbon are removed from the air and stored as biomass. Growth efficiency declines as the tree grows but corresponding increases in the tree’s total leaf area are enough to overcome this decline and thus the whole-tree carbon accumulation rate increases with age and size (Figure 1). A study of 673,046 trees across six countries and 403 species found that at the extreme, a large old tree may sequester as much carbon in one year as growing an entire medium size tree (Stephenson et al. 2014). At one site, large trees comprised 6 percent of the trees but 33 percent of the annual forest growth. Young trees grow fast, but old trees store a disproportional amount of carbon.
  2. Old forests accumulate carbon and contain vast quantities of it. Old-growth forests have traditionally been considered negligible as carbon sinks. Although individual trees experience an increasing rate of carbon sequestration, forest stands experience an “S-curve” of net sequestration rates (e.g. slow, rapid, slow). The expected decline in older stands is due to tree growth being balanced by mortality and decomposition. To test the universality of carbon neutrality in old forests, an international team of scientists reviewed 519 published forest carbon-flux estimates from stands 15 to 800 years old and found that, in fact, net carbon storage was positive for 75 percent of the stands over 180 years old and the chance of finding an old-growth forest that was carbon neutral was less than one in ten (Luyssaert et al. 2014). They concluded that old-growth forests are usually carbon sinks, steadily accumulating carbon and containing vast quantities of it. They argued that carbon-accounting rules for forests should give credit for leaving old-growth forest intact. This is important globally, as old forests in the tropics have acted as long-term net biomass/carbon sinks but are now vulnerable to edge effects, logging and thinning, or increased mortality from disturbances (Brienen et al. 2015, Lan Qui et al. 2018).blank
  3. Old forests accumulate carbon in soils. The soil carbon balance of old-growth forests has received little attention, although it was generally accepted that soil organic carbon levels in old forests are in a steady state. In 2017, Guoyi Zhou and colleagues measured the 24-year dynamics of the soil carbon in an old-growth forest at China’s Dinghushan Biosphere Reserve. They found that soils in the top 20-cm soil layer accumulated atmospheric carbon at an unexpectedly high rate, with soil organic carbon concentration increasing from about 1.4 percent to 2.4 percent and soil carbon stock increasing significantly at an average rate of 0.61 metric tons of carbon per hectare per year (Zhou, G. et al. 2006). Their result directly challenges the prevailing belief in ecosystem ecology regarding carbon budget in old-growth forests and calls for further study.blank
  4. Forests share carbon among and between tree species. Forest trees compete for light and soil resources, and competition for resources is commonly considered the dominant tree-to-tree interaction in forests. However, recent research made possible by stable carbon isotope labeling indicates that trees interact in more complex ways, including substantial exchange and sharing of carbon. In 2016, Tamir Klein and colleagues applied carbon isotope labeling at the canopy scale, and found that carbon assimilated by a tall spruce was traded with neighboring beech, larch, and pine trees via overlapping root spheres. Aided by mycorrhiza networks, interspecific transfer accounted for 40 percent of the fine root carbon totaling roughly 280 kilograms per hectare per year tree-to-tree transfer (Klein et al. 2016). In a subsequent study, Morrie et al. (2017), found that mycorrhiza soil networks become more connected and take up more carbon as forest succession progresses even without major changes in dominant species composition.
  5. Forest carbon can help slow climate change. There has been debate about the role of forests in sequestering carbon and the role of land stewardship in achieving the Paris Climate Agreement goal. In 2017, Bronson Griscom and colleagues systematically evaluated twenty conservation, restoration, and improved land management actions that increase carbon storage and/or avoid greenhouse gas emissions. They found the maximum potential of these natural climate solutions was almost 24 billion metric tons of carbon equivalent per-year while safeguarding food security and biodiversity. About half of this could be delivered as cost-effective contributions to the Paris Agreement, equivalent to about 30 percent of needed mitigation as of 2030, with 63 percent coming from forest-related actions (Figure 2). Avoided forest conversion had the highest carbon potential among the low-cost solution (Griscom et al. 2017). New research suggests this strategy is the most cost-feasible option by a large margin (Busch et al. 2019) and it should receive high priority as a policy consideration in the U.S. (McKinley et al. 2011). An analysis of 18,507 forest plots in the Northeast found that old forests (greater than 170 years) supported the largest carbon pools and the highest simultaneous levels of carbon storage, timber growth, and species richness (Thom et al. 2019). In addition to carbon, old forests also build soil, cycle nutrients, mitigate pollution, purify water, release oxygen, and provide habitat for wildlife.


Recently published, peer-reviewed science has established that unmanaged forests can be highly effective at capturing and storing carbon. It is now clear that trees accumulate carbon over their entire lifespan and that old, wild forests accumulate far more carbon than they lose through decomposition and respiration, thus acting as carbon sinks. This is especially true when taking into account the role of undisturbed soils only found in unmanaged forests. In many instances, the carbon storage potential of old and wild forests far exceeds that of managed forests. We now know that the concept of overmature forest stands, used by the timber industry in reference to forest products, does not apply to carbon. In the Northeast, a vigorous embrace of natural climate solutions to mitigate global overheating does not require an either/or choice between managed and unmanaged forests. Conserving unmanaged wild forests is a useful, scalable, and cost-effective complementary strategy to the continued conservation of well-managed woodlands.


Stephenson et al. 2014. Rate of tree carbon accumulation increases continuously with tree size. Nature 507, 90–93. doi:10.1038/nature12914

Luyssaert et al. 2008. Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks. Nature 455, 213–215. doi:10.1038/nature07276

Zhou, G. et al. 2006. Old-Growth Forests Can Accumulate Carbon in Soils. Science 314 (1) 1417.

Morrie et al. 2017. Soil networks become more connected and take up more carbon as nature restoration progresses. Nature Communications 8:14349.

Klein et al. 2016. Belowground carbon trade among tall trees in a temperate forest. Science 352, Issue 6283, pp. 342–344.

Griscom, B.W., Adams, J., et al. 2017. Natural Climate Solutions. PNAS 114 (44) 11645–11650.

R. J. W. Brienen, R. J. W., et. al. 2015. Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature 519, 346–347.

Lan Oje et al. 2017. Long-term carbon sink in Borneo’s forests halted by drought and vulnerable to edge effects. Nature Communications 8: 1966.

Busch J, et al. 2019. Potential for low-cost carbon dioxide removal through tropical reforestation. Nature Climate Change 9, 463–466.

McKinley, D.C. et al. 2011. A synthesis of current knowledge on forests and carbon storage in the United States. Ecological Applications 21(6) 1902–1924.

Thom et al. 2019. The climate sensitivity of carbon, timber, and species richness covaries with forest age. Global Change Biology 25:2446–2458.


Anderson, M.G. 2019. Wild Carbon: A synthesis of recent findings. Northeast Wilderness Trust. Montpelier, VT USA.


Mark G. Anderson, PhD is the Director of Conservation Science for The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern U.S. Region and a board member of the Northeast Wilderness Trust.



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4 years ago

Mark G Andersen refer to Luyssaert et al. 2014, but there is only one article by Luyssaert et al. 2008 in the reference list.

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