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Let’s C About Carbon Capture

Thursday, June 29, 2017, by Molly Leavens
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[Protecting myself from insects, no matter the temperature]Climate change is happening and it is stressing me out. Humans are releasing exorbitant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and simultaneously cutting down forests, a mechanism that re-captures this carbon dioxide. This imbalance is making the world HOT and unleashing innumerable global ecological, financial, and health consequences. The story of climate change is increasingly well told, but we have struggled to combat this trend because our need to reduce our carbon consumption is at odds with our need to power our energy intensive life styles.[Painted turtle laying eggs in sand parking lot]

Wood generated energy could therefore be a golden ticket. After we cut and burn a tree, we can plant a new tree in the same spot and as that new tree grows, it will re-capture all the carbon emitted by the burning of the first tree. While great in theory, this process is unfortunately a touch more complicated in practice. There is an unavoidable gap in time before the new tree is full-grown, and during this delay, the carbon dioxide released from burning the first tree is chilling in the atmosphere and making the planet not-chill. In other words, the longer carbon dioxide hangs around before being captured by a plant and transformed into organic material, the greater its global warming potential.

[Blackberry and Raspberry plants are thorny, but good for a delicious treat]I am therefore interested in how long it takes a harvested (or logged) forest to re-grow. This information can help citizens and policy makers better understand the climate change implications of wood-generated heat and energy. In its broadest sense, my research is one tiny step towards re-shaping New England’s future energy supply. But as with most academic research, my day-to-day work is much further removed. I spend most of my time in the forest measuring the dimensions of trees, stumps, rotting logs, and just about everything that contains carbon within 20 by 20 meter plots. These plots fall within patches of untouched mature forest (the “control” plots) and patches harvested almost 10 years ago that are currently dense with young trees and the thorniest plants east of the Mississippi. With the tree and wood measurements, some equations and computer coding, we can calculate how much carbon each plot contains and how that amount is changing over time. These results are of course only one part of the answer to the question about the sustainability of wood-generated energy. The amount of carbon-based fuels used by machinery to cut down and transport the harvested timber, the efficiency of a specific wood burner, the change in carbon content of the soil, etc., all influence the larger sustainability question, and I am a small piece of the larger puzzle.

[After spraining my ankle trail running, I still joined in the field to collect data]A New England forest is an incredible place to spend the summer. It is warm and sunny more often than not, quiet with intermittent song birds, and chock full of myriad biting insects. Climate change is the issue motivating my summer, but I probably spend more time thinking about mosquitos as they devilishly bite through my clothing. But I am by no means doing this research alone. I work with several other researchers in the field, have the unwavering support of two mentors, and enjoy access to Harvard Forest’s wealth of historical data. The summer program itself has been everything I had hoped it would be: interesting seminars, incredible homemade food, access to all sorts of outdoor recreation, and nothing but friendly people. My favorite part of the research thus far has been learning tree and plant identification. To know how much carbon a tree contains within its trunk and leaves, I need not only its diameter measurement but also its species. I have learned the characteristics of about 60 different trees, herbs, ferns, and shrubs, and I am excited to bring this skill on future nature walks. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about and engage with my passion for sustainability and by the end of the summer, the Harvard Forest will certainly leave a bigger impact on me than I will leave on it.  


Molly Leavens is a rising junior at Harvard studying Environmental Science and Public Policy.

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