While much of the work in combating climate change is geared toward reducing emissions — whether through pursuing renewable energy or rethinking long-held transportation options and food systems — one U-M team is taking a different approach, focusing on removing greenhouse gases from the environment.
Biosequestration relies on the natural ability of living organisms and biological processes to capture carbon. The biosequestration internal analysis team, part of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, has been working for several months to evaluate the biosequestration of university-owned lands.
Managed by two professors at UM-Flint and undergraduate and graduate students across the university, the biosequestration team is one of eight internal analysis teams supporting the commission, tackling distinct but interdependent topics critical to the university’s broad carbon neutrality ambitions.
“Not all of carbon neutrality is focused on emissions and what we’re putting out,” explained Rebecca Tonietto, assistant professor of biology at UM-Flint and co-faculty lead of the team. “So much of this natural world and our plant life is actually taking it in.
“It’s a really exciting team to be on because we’re highlighting this positive baseline of the value of our natural systems and our green spaces on Michigan landholdings.”
Given the array of different types of land that U-M holds — most of which extends beyond what students, staff and faculty see regularly — a multifaceted approach is needed.
In terms of scale, the team is accumulating data on both large, undeveloped lands — including properties across Michigan and the Camp Davis research site in Wyoming — and smaller holdings, where more modest, but still impactful, sequestration projects can take place.
Heather Dawson, associate professor of biology at UM-Flint and co-faculty lead of the team, said potential projects could involve converting unused agricultural land to wetlands, where native soil is prime for sequestration.
On a smaller scale, the team is evaluating the impact of replacing some areas of turf grass with low-growing native plants that do not require mowing and have better sequestration capabilities.
These are just a couple options, with reforestation and sustainable agriculture also being explored. An underlying objective, Dawson noted, is “to put value on that particular land itself, as its ability to biosequester as well as providing ecosystem services.”
The team also has to be versatile with data collection. On some properties, like the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, analysis team members have information on the carbon sequestration potential of each individual tree. On other holdings, the team leans on geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing and the vegetation expertise of student team members to evaluate a site’s sequestration potential.
While detailed information on each tree may seem preferable, GIS is important to one of the team’s broader goals: developing a toolkit for like-minded institutions interested in exploring their biosequestration potential.
“(With GIS) we see what the land cover (on different U-M properties) looks like, so we can compare all of the different properties and compare the biosequestration impact potential of properties by seeing how many different land cover classes there are,” said Nicole Blankertz, a fourth-year student at UM-Flint studying wildlife biology and writing.
Blankertz contributes her combined field experience, lab experience, and competence with GIS and R, a statistical programming language, to the team. Among her efforts is updating a tree inventory for the UM-Flint campus to complement the group’s data. She is interested in pursuing a career that involves continued research and field work after graduation.
Lara O’Brien, a master’s student at the School for Environment and Sustainability currently taking part in work to reassess the land use of six SEAS-managed off-campus research properties, said the team’s charge fell squarely into her skillset. So she applied to join the team and is now deeply engaged in the work.
“We are able to estimate current above- and below-ground biomass and carbon storage and identify sites that could be improved with future biosequestration projects,” O’Brien said. “We are researching potential biosequestration techniques from current ecological knowledge to the latest emerging technologies and are also looking at comparable institutions to see what methods are currently being carried out.”
Prior to beginning her studies at SEAS, O’Brien earned a graduate degree from the University of Kansas, where she focused on the impacts of climate change in Kiribati, a small, low-lying island nation in the central Pacific.
While O’Brien and Blankertz are deep in the details of evaluating different holdings and exploring different approaches, their motivations reflect the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality’s mission.
“A main goal is to provide a few different ways to improve biosequestration. It’s really important now with climate change that we start looking for more options to sequester carbon,” Blankertz said.
“We are in the process of reaching out to organizations on all three campuses, as well as members of the wider community, to see what projects have been tried in the past on U-M property and see what has been successful — or not — in terms of implementation, participation, support and oversight,” O’Brien said. “Ultimately, we want the recommendations we put forth to be carried out and successful in the long-term, and having community engagement and support will be crucial.”
The status of the biosequestration team’s efforts and work ahead will be detailed again in the commission’s second interim report, due this spring. The commission expects to deliver its final recommendations in late 2020.
Other internal analysis teams are evaluating building standards, campus culture and communication, commuting, energy consumption policies, external collaboration, food and university travel. More than 50 students are adding their expertise to the analysis teams. Subgroups are also examining other topics, such as carbon accounting and social justice considerations.