Start with a tree leaf.

Imagine the photosynthesis process. A leaf utilizes the energy in sunlight to transform carbon dioxide and water, bonding carbon atoms with hydrogen to form simple sugars while releasing oxygen molecules. Some of that sugar will harden into the biomass of the tree, locking in carbon to form the branches, trunk, and roots. The rest will be shed as nuts, leaves, and fruit to be consumed by animals or decomposed by microbes in the soil.

Now go wider. Imagine a forest where older trees spread an overhead canopy while young saplings rise in shade. On the forest floor, fallen trees are in the process of decomposition, their carbon holds leaching gradually into the soil and waterways to fertilize new plants.

Move further out, and imagine the forests connected to shrublands and prairies, to neighborhoods and parks and cities. Imagine the soil underground, which stores significantly more carbon, holding it in molecular ecosystems that persist through time scales far longer than the life of a tree or forest. Imagine the water that moves through all of these environments, providing a resource for plants to grow and water for downstream communities. Consider the cycle of precipitation and the accumulation of water in streams and rivers and ponds, which hold and carry carbon to the ocean.

Imagine the forest as the center of a dynamic, interconnected system that is perpetually engaged in carbon exchange processes that have given rise to all life on this planet. Imagine all that and you will be closer to understanding how forests might be the last, best solution to solving the global challenge of climate change while contributing to a revolution in sustainable materials utilization for products needed by society.

Understanding the carbon cycle and its outcomes

“Carbon is a central currency in many aspects of forest and conservation science,” explained Associate Professor Quinn Thomas, an ecologist who specializes in forest ecosystems. “Carbon management and utilization touches on many domains of science, management, and policy — from the basic science of studying plants and soils, to resource conservation and management, hydrology, climate science, the economics of the lumber and biomaterial industries, and global policy perspectives. The carbon cycle combines them together.”

The amount of carbon on Earth is effectively constant, but all life depends on having the capacity to obtain and dispose of this element. The process of carbon cycling through Earth systems is where forests can have the greatest potential impact.

According to a USDA Forest Service report (Research Update FS-227), forests, wood products, and urban tree stands represent the largest net carbon sink in the United States, offsetting approximately 11% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. Virginia’s role is particularly significant: Virginia’s total forest carbon biomass hold ranks fourth among the 48 contiguous states, behind Mississippi, Alabama, and Oregon.

The College of Natural Resources and Environment aims to take a lead role in advancing our understanding of carbon cycle processes and outcomes.

“If we are going to make progress in understanding and mitigating climate change and its impacts on our human ecosystem, we must first understand the science behind carbon,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college. “Forests are central to our understanding, and the disciplines of the college and our faculty expertise have a deep core of talent toward this goal.”

To provide undergraduates with a comprehensive background on the many impacts carbon has on our world, the college offers numerous courses that consider carbon across a range of perspectives, from soil-level understanding of the microbial processes in forest ecosystems, to satellite telemetry technologies that allow researchers to visualize carbon and climate dynamics at a continental scale.

“To really tackle a challenge like carbon, you need to work collaboratively across disciplines,” Professor John Seiler explained. “The subject is both an economics challenge and a biology challenge. There are health and environmental questions and policy demands, and you need all of those perspectives coming to the table. CNRE is extremely diverse: we have our own economists and modelers, our own soil scientists and ecologists, our own social scientists and policy leaders. We have researchers on the cutting edge of every dimension of this topic.”

Because the subject of carbon touches on so many aspects of forest science, it would be impossible to itemize all of the contributions that researchers and students in CNRE are doing in the field of carbon, but some examples are provided below.

“This college has a deep pool of talent capable of making a difference in sustaining life on this planet,” Winistorfer noted. “From understanding the biological processes of photosynthesis and wood formation, to ecology and its myriad interconnectedness to all living things, to the remarkable renewable materials being manufactured, to economics of environmental choice, to policy and how it influences our management of the global landscape — it all starts with carbon and our forest processes and products. We do forests well, and because of that we are uniquely positioned to take on the critical challenges of carbon.”

Carbon’s Significance and Uses

Carbon is characterized as the fourth most abundant element in the universe and the 15th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Biologically, carbon holds a significant position and is part of all living systems. In humans, carbon makes up about 18.5% of body mass and is the second most abundant element in the body. Carbon and carbon products are used in a wide array of products and applications:

  • Graphite is widely used in refractory applications, greasy lubricants, furnace linings, and carbon brushes in motors.
  • Activated carbon or charcoal is used in filters for respirators and kitchen hoods.
  • Owing to its immense strength and durability, diamond is used to make drills for cutting rocks and other hard materials.
  • Carbon fiber is used in fishing rods, tennis rackets, airplane components, and other products as it is extraordinarily strong and lightweight.
  • The discovery of carbon nanotubes, which are widely used in the electronic industry, has revolutionized nanotechnology.
  • Carbon is used in various metallurgy processes.
  • Carbon black is used in making pigments and inks.
  • Carbon dioxide is used in fire extinguishers and as dry ice, and provides the fizz in carbonated beverages.

Quinn Thomas, Associate Professor, Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation (FREC)

Quinn Thomas uses flux towers, a state-of-the-art instrumentation tool, to measure and model carbon accumulation in a variety of ecosystems, from pine plantations to switchgrass stands utilized in bioenergy production. “This research requires high-frequency instruments that can measure CO2 concentrations and wind dynamics at sub-second intervals.”

Carol Franco, Senior Research Associate, FREC

Carol Franco has had an active role in REDD+ (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a program under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, supporting implementation efforts in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. She has also served as a delegate of her native Dominican Republic for climate change negotiations since 2012, contributing to the decisions on forests, land use and land use change, and agriculture. “In my Climate Change and the International Policy Framework pathways course, students learn about the international policy process and the main issues being debated at the negotiations. This year, there is a specific focus on carbon markets, which are key to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.”

Department of Sustainable Biomaterials

The Department of Sustainable Biomaterials is committed to using natural, renewable resources to develop new materials and energy sources that can lessen impacts on our environment. Among the research taking place in the department is a project on the use of hardwood lumber in the manufacturing of cross-laminated timber products, a lightweight and sustainable building material.

Department of Geography

The Department of Geography is utilizing advancing technologies to analyze Earth systems at scales that have never been attempted. From scaling the Rocky Mountains to observe meteorological phenomena, to projecting the impacts that climate change will have on coastal communities in Virginia, the department is working to better understand the global climate dynamics that will impact our future.

Brian Strahm, Associate Professor, FREC

Carbon in soil is the largest actively cycled carbon reservoir on the planet, and small changes to that carbon pool can have significant consequences for the climate system. To understand soil carbon dynamics, Brian Strahm is working on a collaborative project to utilize National Ecological Observatory Network data to perform a continental-scale assessment of what influences carbon persistence in soil and how climate change could impact soil carbon stores. “We’re teasing apart the chemistry of the soil to look at all of the factors that influence carbon stores. A lot of that work is looking at the factors that conspire to influence carbon dynamics below ground, including temperature, moisture, mineralogy, and the microbial communities in the soil.”

Stella Schons, Assistant Professor, FREC

The Amazon rain forest accounts for approximately 10% of the world’s ecosystem carbon stores. Stella Schons’ research centers on the economics of forestry industry and policy in the region, and she is working to cultivate collaborative research projects with universities in Brazil. “My research is focused on conservation and the economics involved in trying to balance land use with environmental regulations.”

John Seiler, Professor, FREC

John Seiler’s expertise is in measuring the carbon inputs and outputs of forest ecosystems and how different variables and practices influence carbon sequestration and outputs. “I measure leaf photosynthesis and respirations, as well as soil respiration — what is going into the tree and what comes out, and I look at how variables like fertilization or air pollution impact those measurements. Other people take my numbers and use them to develop advanced models to understand how current systems work, and how they might change under differing circumstances.”