From sink to source: Regional variation in U.S. forest carbon futures
The sequestration of atmospheric carbon (C) in forests has partially offset C emissions in the United States (US) and might reduce overall costs of achieving emission targets, especially while transportation and energy sectors are transitioning to lower-carbon technologies. Using detailed forest inventory data for the conterminous US, we estimate forests’ current net sequestration of atmospheric C to be 173 Tg yr−1, offsetting 9.7% of C emissions from transportation and energy sources. Accounting for multiple driving variables, we project a gradual decline in the forest C emission sink over the next 25 years (to 112 Tg yr−1) with regional differences. Sequestration in eastern regions declines gradually while sequestration in the Rocky Mountain region declines rapidly and could become a source of atmospheric C due to disturbances such as fire and insect epidemics. C sequestration in the Pacific Coast region stabilizes as forests harvested in previous decades regrow. Scenarios simulating climate-induced productivity enhancement and afforestation policies increase sequestration rates, but would not fully offset declines from aging and forest disturbances. Separating C transfers associated with land use changes from sequestration clarifies forests’ role in reducing net emissions and demonstrates that retention of forest land is crucial for protecting or enhancing sink strength.