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Answers to how to remove greenhouse gasses from the Earth’s atmosphere could lay in the vast forests of New Mexico.
About 17 million acres of New Mexico forests could be part of a federally funded experiment to trap carbon dioxide and permanently remove the gas from the environment.
The program was funded by $99,000 provided to the New Mexico Forestry Division through the U.S. Climate Alliance and United Nations Fund will test forest land throughout the state for its ability to capture and sequester carbon from the air.
State officials believe the forests could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reducing pollution and helping New Mexico reach its goals in addressing climate change.
Based on data collected in the study, the State would target forest management in areas where the most carbon is already presently being captured, aiming to increase the vegetation’s sequestration ability.
Funds will augment ongoing investments in the research from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Carbon Monitoring System (CMS) which officials hope will help inform future state efforts.
Carbon dioxide, the Earth’s most common greenhouse gas, is naturally removed from the atmosphere by gathering in plants and soils known as “carbon sinks.”
The question is what plants capture the most carbon, and if work can be done to capture more and release less.
New Mexico Forestry Division Jeremy Klass, also an adjunct professor of biology at the University of New Mexico said the work could push New Mexico forward in its initiatives to offset air pollution using its vast forest system.
“There is very little data estimating the carbon pools and rates of carbon sequestration of New Mexico’s lands,” Klass said. “Precise and accurate estimates of carbon storage and fluxes are critical for guiding land management, informing greenhouse gas reduction initiatives, and developing carbon accounting systems.”
The Division’s parent agency, New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) planned to collaborate with the University of Maryland’s Hurtt Laboratory to generate and analyze annual historic data on carbon sequestered in New Mexico’s forests.
They will use this research to determine future options for sequestering carbon.
UNM Biology Professor Marcy Litvak, who serves as primary investigator for a network of carbon “flux towers” that study carbon levels in New Mexico’s forests – a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy – said the project will give a better understanding to scientists in their efforts to capture carbon throughout New Mexico.
The flux towers measure how much carbon enters and leaves New Mexico’s forests since 2007, and that data could be used to determine where best sequestration efforts could be focused, Litvak said.
Towers are located around central New Mexico near the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge and Santa Fe National Forest, studying the carbon sequestration ability of grasslands, shrublands, juniper bushes, pinon trees and ponderosa pines.
“Understanding how much carbon our natural and working lands in New Mexico can store, how sensitive these carbon stores are to climate and disturbance, and if they can be managed to sequester more carbon, is a crucial component of statewide efforts to move toward carbon neutrality in the coming decades,” Litvak said.
NASA CMS team leader George Hurtt said the research could prove to be a model for how federal programs could study the carbon sequestration potential throughout the U.S.
New Mexico’s project came on the heels of the federal government announcing the formation of its Greenhouse Gas Monitoring and Measurement Interagency Working Group, created by the administration of President Joe Biden to pursue similar work in other states.
“I am hopeful that NASA CMS will contribute to this broadly and that our work with states on high-resolution forest carbon monitoring will become a model for the working group and nation,” Hurtt said.
New Mexico’s Climate Change Task Force, made up of officials from EMNRD and NMED, were leading the project in the state, as part of its broader goal to limit the impacts of climate change by reducing pollutants that are released by the state.
“The applicability of the knowledge and data outcomes from this effort has regional, political, and sectoral implications in mapping and modeling forest carbon stocks for the first time in arid climates,” read a statement from EMNRD.
“The progression and application of the CMS fills a huge data void that is desperately required to evaluate the ability of forested systems to serve as natural climate solutions in arid climates throughout the globe.”
The U.S. at the COP26 World Leaders Summit last year, during the Forest Day Session Nov. 2, 2021 announced plans to conserve from development areas like New Mexico’s forests that could be used as carbon sinks.
By 2030, the federal administration hoped to dedicate up to $9 billion to such projects.
“To maximize the potential contribution of forests and other critical ecosystems to a net zero emissions world, the United States intends to work with partners to respond to the challenges of halting deforestation, improving land use, and restoring ecosystems at scale,” read a statement from the U.S. Department of State.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.