Cutting edge climate work: Michigan Tech researchers contribue to carbon report

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Michigan Technological University researchers Rodney Chimner and Evan Kane contributed to a chapter on wetlands in a new report studying the carbon cycle in North America.

HOUGHTON — Two Michigan Technological University researchers contributed to a new report showing how carbon is being released or stored in North America.

Rodney Chimner and Evan Kane — respectively, a professor and associate professor in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science — contributed to the Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR2). The report, which attempts to catalog and track carbon as it circulates in North America, is updated every 10 years.

Both were tapped as contributing writers on Chapter 13, which covers wetlands.

“Basically you’re summarizing every study that’s ever been done on topics that you’re chosen to do, so you have to read a lot of papers, synthesize all that information into very concise statements, because you don’t have a lot of space,” Chimner said.

Each contributed on their specialties. For Kane, that meant boreal, or subarctic, peatlands and high-latitude wetlands. Chimner wrote on the restoration of wetlands and how it affects carbon storage.

“They’re usually found to be quite important and worth saving or conserving,” he said.

North American wetlands make up about 37 percent of the world’s total. As better studies have been done, the importance of wetlands in storing carbon has become clearer, Chimner said.

Each year, North American wetlands take in about 123 teragrams of carbon per year — about equal to the amount of harvesting wood emissions each year.

“If you were to look at a textbook from the late 90s, it would estimate that soils globally harbor about 15,000 petagrams of carbon, and now that estimate is two to three times times that,” Kane said.

Climate change could cause additional draining in areas that become drier, Chimner said. The “warmer and weirder” weather could also change the mix of wetlands vegetation, the means by which carbon gets stored. Wetlands are also becoming increasingly subject to fire, not just in boreal regions but in the tropics, Kane said.

Once viewed as a breeding ground for pestilence and filled in, wetlands have become prized for their role in storing carbon, and for traits such as acting as buffers for storms. The rate of wetlands disappearance has tailed off. But replacement wetlands may be less functional.

The rate of losses in the future will depend largely on human actions, Chimner said. As an example of uncertainty, he cited new Michigan legislation that would weaken wetlands protection.

“It’s picked up in some parts of the world and slowed down in others, but it’s still occurring everywhere,” he said. “But they’re getting more protection and understanding of why you’d want to keep them.”

Future areas they see for research include fire and the interaction with arboreal wetlands, as well as the melting of the permafrost.

The carbon report was released concurrently with the National Climate Assessment over Thanksgiving weekend. Despite being released shortly after a holiday, the reports have still caught attention, they say.

“Even though it was tried to be pushed aside, it hasn’t been pushed aside,” Chimner said. “It’s getting a lot of traction, and getting people to talk about it and understanding that the science is progressing.”

The full report can be found at carbon2018.globalchange.gov.

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