Big bluestem grass (Adropogon gerardii) and other native prairie plants store large amounts of carbon in their roots. Photo by Pat Whalen

Native Plants Store Carbon

One acre of prairie/prairie plantings can store 1 ton of carbon in roots/soil per year. (Source: University of Minnesota). Per Steven Apfelbaum: has measured 3–5 tons of total carbon increases per acre under Adaptive Multi-paddock (AMP) grazing and restored prairies, especially in the Midwest

Climate change, caused by increased release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to human activities poses serious threats to economies and the quality of life for all people on earth. 

Increased atmospheric carbon can be mitigated by conservation of intact habitats, agricultural practices that increase the carbon-storage capacity of soils, and by establishment of native plants in altered landscapes that are particularly suited to storing carbon in their roots and soil. 

According to Dr. Steven Apfelbaum, founder of Applied Ecological Services, the effectiveness of carbon capture in soil is dependent on how well plants selected for a site (planted for the purpose of carbon capture) will thrive. The carbon capture of trees and other woody species is praised in much scientific literature and in the popular press, but in many cases trees are not the best choice to plant for atmospheric carbon mitigation, but prairie plants often are.

Consider these facts:

–Nearly half of all the root mass below a prairie is carbon, which was removed from the atmosphere during plant growth. Roots are continuously growing and dying. While some of the carbon in dead roots is returned to the atmosphere when it is decomposed, some is converted into organic matter and other soil particles that can for decades. So prairie roots can be both a short- and long-term method for carbon sequestration. (Dr. Jacob Jungers, U. of Minn.)

–Diverse prairies have many species (mostly non-woody) with wide range of different root architectures—some have shallow, fibrous root networks while others have long taproots that can reach water nearly two meters deep. This allows for many prairie species to exist together and make for a productive system. (Dr. Jacob Jungers, U. of Minn.)

–Carbon sequestration is correlated with above- and below ground plant and microbial productivity: soil types, depths, and moisture availability and plant stimulation (e.g, fire) are all factors re. highest sequestration levels. (Apfelbaum)

–As a community, a prairie can remain productive under extreme water conditions, whether it is too much or too little rain, because a prairie has species that are particularly resilient to such conditions and can thus continue to grow when other species may be negatively impacted. (Dr. Jacob Jungers, U. of Minn.)

–Planting of trees in soil settings not with a historic tree cover (aforestation) not only dewaters soils but also helps decompose soil organic carbon. In parts of the planet with increased drought, this will exacerbate stress complexes that include insects, fire, and invasive species, leading to higher tree mortality, slow regeneration in some species, and altered species assemblages. (Steven Apfelbaum)

–Rebuilding soils for storing carbon, can be accomplished two ways. First, conservation lands—which are not used for farming—can be restored with deep-rooted grassland or wetland plants, which sequester carbon more effectively than trees do. Second, America’s soil systems in farmland, where the soil’s riches have been depleted by intensive growing of crops, can be restored. Farmers can still help increase carbon soil through techniques such as “no-till” farming. (Tillage farming, by contrast, involves plowing and disrupting the soil, which releases carbon.)

–Scientific analyses show that recapturing atmospheric carbon into soil and plant communities is the easiest and least expensive method for mitigating climate change and that it provides many other economic, cultural, and ecological benefits. Restoring soils in currently farmed land can rein in 10 to 15 percent of the annual carbon emissions Americans create. Replanting native grasslands and restoring drained wetlands can reduce up to another 20 percent.) (Steven Apfelbaum, Every Child Can Help Fight Climate Change by Playing in the Dirt)

Read more:

–Learn more about climate change, biodiversity, and the importance of prairie conservation in this interview with Dr. Peter Raven, in the Missouri Prairie Journal.

Carbon Gardening: A Natural Climate Solution that Can Help Reduce CO2 Emissions While Restoring Biodiversity article by Resilience. 

Grasslands More Reliable Carbon Sink Than Trees article by UC Davis Science & Climate

Soil Carbon Management: Economic, Environmental, and Societal Benefits, Chapter 1

Can the Climate-Friendly Grain Kernza Finally Hit the Big Time? article by Civil Eats

Interview with Dr. Jake Jungers from the Missouri Prairie Journal