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Trees absorb carbon dioxide. An MSU professor wants to find out which trees absorb the most.

Posted at 12:23 PM, Nov 29, 2021

EAST LANSING, Mich. — More than half of the state of Michigan is covered by forests, which means that protecting them and understanding their role in changing the climate is very important.

Kyla Dahlin is making it her mission.

Dahlin, a professor in Michigan State University's Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences, is studying how different tree species take up different amounts of carbon dioxide.

The project, she said, is "relevant to climate change because trees take up a lot of the carbon dioxide that we're putting out into the environment. I think the most direct application is, if we now think about times when a landowner might get paid to keep their forest growing instead of cutting it down for some reason, if we had a system like that in place, then we need to be able to monitor those forests and understand how much carbon they are actually taking up over time."

Trees and plants are essential for taking in the carbon dioxide that humans produce. Carbon dioxide is a nutrient for trees. The more the tree absorbs, the healthier it grows.

Trees "provide clean air, and clean water. They also provide places for wildlife to live,” said Scott Whitcomb, the director of the Office of Public Lands at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Whitcomb said 53 percent of Michigan is covered with forests.

“These forests and the health of them are incredibly important to Michigan,” Whitcomb said.

However, research shows that trees can only absorb a fraction of the carbon dioxide we emit when burning fossil fuels for heat, electricity, and transportation. The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to climate change and global warming.

Dahlin said that what is new and interesting about her project is the new tools she is working with, including an airborne remote sensing system, an airplane that gathers information above the forests.

“Through that we collect data that we just have never been able to collect before," she said, "that is looking at both the leaf chemistry from above… and then there is a system called a LIDAR sensor that actually shoots a low-energy laser into the forest and measures how tall trees are."

This data is published on the National Ecological Observatory Network.

“If we are able to apply it across the entire world with some of these satellites that may launch in the next 5 to ten years, then we will surely be able to see forests in a way that we have never been able to see them before,” she said.

Dahlin’s project is being funded by the National Science Foundation, which awarded her more than $1 million for the five-year study.

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