The Northeast's forests may act as a carbon sink – or as an emissions source
During growth, trees and other plants convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into stored carbon in their trunks, branches, leaves and other parts, and in the soil. When soils are disturbed and when trees decay or are harvested and processed, carbon is returned to the atmosphere as CO2.
Northeast forests currently reduce regional emissions
Forests across the region remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they emit, making the region a net CO2 “sink.” Over the past 20 years, the region’s forests have offset 5% to 11% of the region’s total CO2 emissions. Forests have been a net sink over the last century – despite harvesting and development – because overall forest acreage increased as forests colonized abandoned agricultural lands. The average age of forests also increased over the last century, leading to increased carbon storage as the forests matured.
Forest loss threatens to turn forests into an additional source of emissions
Today, housing development and urban sprawl in the Northeast have resulted in a net decrease in forested land; 1.57 million acres have been lost since 1973, an area twice the size of Rhode Island. Forest conversion is a major source of emissions. Some of the region’s forests, such as in Maine and Connecticut, have been net sources of emissions in recent years. So far, tree growth on forested acres has increased overall carbon storage in the region, despite the fact that the total area of forest is shrinking. However, if forest cover shrinks too much, this sector could become a net source of emissions.