America’s residential areas are expanding fast. But, despite this, scientists know little about how well fixtures of American residential life, things like standard-issue turf lawns, shade trees, marigold gardens and the inevitable evergreen “foundation plantings,” draw climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere — a possibly significant oversight in national-scale estimates of carbon sequestration.
A new $660,000, three-year National Science Foundation project led by Jennifer Jenkins, a research assistant professor at the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics, seeks to change that by quantifying carbon cycles in three Baltimore-area neighborhoods, and determining how different factors influence them.
“What we’re doing is starting to fill in the gaps,” Jenkins says. “All the carbon estimates published by the State Department, and used in the Kyoto Protocol, don't include this. So we want to help fill in the spreadsheet. We are going to test hypotheses about what really drives these residential stocks and fluxes.”
To begin getting a better handle on the issue, Jenkins and her colleagues, many of whom are affiliated with the NSF’s Baltimore Long-Term Ecological Research project, will estimate how much carbon dioxide moves in and out of greenery in their selected urban and suburban neighborhoods. They’ll also try to determine the relative importance of factors such as soil type, landscape structure, residential age, and land use history in influencing rates of carbon storage.
“Residential areas are large and growing and, especially in the suburbs, poorly characterized in terms of carbon,” she says.
Jenkins’s project will involve, among other things, selecting sites and test plots, then conducting the delicate education and outreach work that will find residents willing to allow researchers to occasionally visit their property to take meter-deep soil cores, or even mow their lawns (and collect the clippings!) for a summer to quantify the health and turnover of their grass. A social-ecological prong of the project will use neighborhood-level commercial marketing-research to relate an area’s per-capita fertilizer and lawn products spending to the carbon-sequestering vigor of its sweeping green lawns, perhaps yielding a model with predictive power nationwide.
Another fascinating facet of the project involves the analysis of land-use history — a neighborhood's past, whether as forest, agricultural land or a reclaimed golf course, is a factor in its ability to sequester carbon, since sequestration is related to the nitrogen content of soil.
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