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Forest modeling study reveals new insights into carbon sequestration

A forest modeling study has revealed important insights into how harvest rotations can be optimized for maximum carbon sequestration, a critical factor in the fight against climate change. 

The study was led by Catherine Carlisle as a graduate student, alongside Temesgen Hailemariam and Stephen Fitzgerald from the OSU College of Forestry.

New insights

The researchers determined that a site’s productivity, reflecting the rate of tree growth and biomass accumulation, is a key determinant in establishing the ideal time period between timber harvests for maximizing above-ground carbon storage. 

This finding is particularly relevant for forest managers in the Pacific Northwest, who are looking to balance timber harvesting with carbon sequestration.

Northwest forests 

Trees play a vital role in climate change mitigation by absorbing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. The researchers noted that the carbon stored in the woody biomass of U.S. forests offsets about 13% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

The forests in the Northwest, covering nearly 25 million acres, are among the most productive globally. Specifically, the Oregon Coast Range forests stand out due to their high biomass and carbon densities, fostered by the region’s favorable growing conditions.

“Whether short or long harvest rotations are better for maximizing carbon sequestration has been the subject of considerable debate,” said Carlisle. “Future management decisions will need to strive to meet harvest requirements while also striving to maintain high rates of carbon sequestration.”

Focus of the study 

The team used the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest, an 11,000-acre woodland managed by the College of Forestry, as the area for modeling. This forest, home to the Douglas-fir, Oregon’s state tree, was chosen due to its varied productivity levels. The study was focused on over 300 stands.

The researchers utilized the Forest Vegetation Simulator, a software suite, to predict vegetation changes in response to different management activities or natural disturbances.

Settling the debate

“Some forest scientists have argued that multiple but shorter rotations lead to greater sequestration rates because of the accelerated growth rates of younger trees compared to mature or old-growth trees,” said Carlisle, who is now a forest carbon analyst at Finite Carbon. 

“Others say frequent harvesting won’t allow forest carbon to rebound after each subsequent rotation, and thus longer periods between clearcutting are a better choice. And depending on who you ask, thinning will either enhance forest carbon uptake by facilitating growth in residual trees, or hurt it by removing above-ground biomass.”

What the researchers learned 

The study revealed that for highly productive stands, 60-year rotations with a low-intensity thinning at 40 years maximized carbon storage. 

By contrast, less productive sites showed optimal carbon storage with longer rotations of 80 or 120 years, requiring multiple thinning entries to manage understory vegetation and promote Douglas-fir growth.

“On these longer rotations, multiple entries for thinning were required to prevent buildup of understory vegetation that would have suppressed the growth of overstory Douglas-fir,” Carlisle said.

Moderately productive stands were found to perform the best with 80-year rotations and two low-intensity thinning treatments between harvests, she added.

Study implications 

“Forest management decisions in the Northwest in the future will aim to meet harvest requirements while maintaining high sequestration potential of the region’s forests,” said Carlisle. 

“Management techniques like determining the optimal rotation length and implementing silvicultural treatments can be powerful tools that can allow managers to meet both objectives.”

Forest modeling 

Forest modeling is a sophisticated scientific method used to understand and predict the growth, structure, and behavior of forest ecosystems. 

It involves creating computer-based representations or simulations of forests, which help in assessing various aspects such as tree growth, biomass accumulation, carbon sequestration, and the impact of environmental factors and human activities.


In forest modeling, data from real forests is used to create models that simulate the processes occurring within a forest. These models can be quite complex, incorporating various elements like tree species, soil type, climate conditions, and management practices. 


By adjusting the parameters within the models, scientists can predict how forests will respond to different scenarios, such as climate change, natural disturbances like wildfires or pests, and different forest management strategies.


One of the key uses of forest modeling is in the field of forest management and conservation. By simulating different management scenarios, such as varying the timing and intensity of timber harvests or the implementation of conservation practices, forest managers can predict the outcomes and make informed decisions that balance economic needs with ecological sustainability.

Carbon dynamics 

Forest models are also crucial in studying carbon dynamics in forests. With growing concerns over climate change, understanding how forests sequester carbon and how different management practices or disturbances can affect this process is vital. 

Models can predict how much carbon a forest can store under various conditions, helping in the development of strategies to maximize carbon sequestration and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Ecological dynamics 

Additionally, forest modeling is used in research to understand the ecological dynamics of forests. It helps in studying the interactions between different species, the impact of invasive species, and the effects of environmental changes on forest health and biodiversity.

Overall, forest modeling is a powerful tool that provides insights into the functioning of forest ecosystems, supporting efforts in sustainable forest management, conservation, and climate change mitigation.

The study is published in the journal Forests.

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