Aboveground live carbon stock changes of California wildland ecosystems, 2001–2010

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Gonzalez, Patrick, John J. Battles, Brandon M. Collins, Timothy Robards, and David S. Saah
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The balance between ecosystem emissions of carbon to the atmosphere and removals from the atmosphere indicates whether ecosystems are exacerbating or reducing climate change. Forest ecosystems in the State of California, USA, contain carbon that reaches the highest densities (mass per unit area) in the world, but it has been unresolved whether California ecosystems currently comprise a net sink or source of carbon. The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 established greenhouse gas reduction targets for fossil fuel-burning sectors and ecosystems, underscoring the importance of tracking ecosystem carbon. Here, we conduct statewide spatial inventories of the aboveground live carbon stocks of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems of California, excluding agricultural and urban areas. We analyzed biomass data from field measurements of the Forest Inventory and Analysis program, published biomass information and remote sensing data on non-forest vegetation, and spatial distributions of vegetation types, height, and fractional cover derived by the Landfire program from Landsat remote sensing at 30 m spatial resolution. We conducted Monte Carlo analyses of the uncertainty of carbon stock change estimates from errors in tree biomass estimates, remote sensing, and estimates of the carbon fraction of biomass. The carbon stock in aboveground biomass was 850 ± 230 Tg (mean ± 95% confidence interval) in 2010. We found a net aboveground live carbon stock change of −69 ± 15 Tg from 2001 to 2010, a rate of change of −0.8 ± 0.2% y−1. Due to slow decay of some dead wood, all of the live carbon stock change does not immediately generate emissions. Wildfires on 6% of the state analysis area produced two-thirds of the live carbon stock loss. This suggests that increased tree densities from a century of fire suppression have allowed the accumulation of fuel for carbon losses in recent wildfires. Remote sensing errors in vegetation classification accounted for most of the uncertainty in the carbon stock change estimates. Improvements are also needed to track spatial patterns of growth and dead wood. Our results establish the beginning of a time series for the state greenhouse gas inventory and provide information on the role of forest conservation and management in California in mitigating global climate change.


Gonzalez, Patrick, John J. Battles, Brandon M. Collins, Timothy Robards, and David S. Saah. 2015. “Aboveground Live Carbon Stock Changes of California Wildland Ecosystems, 2001–2010.” Forest Ecology and Management 348 (July): 68–77. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2015.03.040.