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Optimizing Forest Carbon: Insights from Thinning and Sustainable Forest Management

Published: May 10, 2024 by

Active forest management holds considerable promise for bolstering forest carbon stocks. Thinning, in particular, offers significant potential to enrich carbon sequestration efforts and improve other ecosystem functionality.  These include mitigating fire risk and enhancing forest health, biodiversity, and water availability within the forests.

A recent study by Zhang et al. (2024) conducts a meta-analysis of 1776 pairs of thinning experiment observations worldwide from 157 published papers. The researchers explored the complex interactions between thinning and vegetation carbon stocks as well as soil carbon dynamics. The analysis found that thinning boosted tree growth–specifically in radial growth– by increasing mean diameter at breast height, tree height, and aboveground (AG) biomass. Thinning also significantly increased the total AG and understory vegetation biomass carbon stocks by 24% and 68% respectively. This effect varied based on several factors (stand densities, recovery ages, and thinning intensity) and across climatic zones. The thinning impact on AG carbon is notably and positively associated with stand density, recovery age, and thinning intensity. Simultaneously, the effect of thinning on soil organic carbon (SOC) is also positive. Furthermore, thinning increases the carbon sequestration rate in trees in the tropical zone, while the effects on carbon stocks in soil are more pronounced in the temperate zone.

In summary, thinning enhances vegetation growth, soil nutrient cycling, and forest carbon stocks. The understory and below-ground carbon dynamics are more complex. The SOC is positively associated with thinning, while below ground carbon remains unchanged, Thinning also reduces the carbon in litterfall, but its impact on understory vegetation, litter, fine roots, and soil carbon diminish after a recovery period of 6 years. Conversely, AG carbon stocks continue to benefit from thinning, particularly in tropical forests, with an increased sequestration rate. Thinning is most effective in medium to high-density stands and reduces carbon stocks in low-density stands. Therefore, effective forest management strategies (e.g., low and moderate thinning) can optimize carbon storage, preserve ecosystem services, and promote sustainable timber production while reducing the risk of forest fires (Hoover and Smith, 2003).

These findings provide valuable guidance for implementing sustainable forest management strategies aimed at maximizing carbon sequestration advantages amidst the challenges of climate change. At The Climate Trust, we collaborate closely with landowners engaged in proactive yet sustainable forest management. Our collaborative efforts aim to enhance forest carbon stocks on their properties while diversifying income sources and promoting environmental stewardship.

Further reading

Zhang, H., Liu, S., Yu, J., Li, J., Shangguan, Z., & Deng, L. (2024). Thinning increases forest ecosystem carbon stocks. Forest Ecology and Management555, 121702.

Hoover, C. M., & Smith, J. E. (2023). Aboveground live tree carbon stock and change in forests of conterminous United States: influence of stand age. Carbon Balance and Management18(1), 7.