Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

The Cornell Botanic Gardens on March 23, 2021.

February 28, 2023

Kevin Moss Discusses Capturing Carbon in Cornell’s Botanical Gardens

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Amid a constantly evolving climate, carbon sequestration is regarded as one of the most critical ecosystem services, involving the capture, preservation and long-term storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide. 

Student and Public Engagement Coordinator of the Cornell Botanic Gardens Kevin Moss hosts “Verdant Views” every month — a webinar series focused on topics related to plants, gardens, conservation and sustainability. The latest installment, “Capturing Carbon: Nature-based Solutions to the Climate Crisis,” was held on Thursday, Feb. 23. 

Attendees of the webinar learned how the 3,725 acres of biologically diverse landscapes on and around the Cornell campus capture carbon, as well what actions must be taken to ensure the continued success in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Moss invited local scientists to discuss what it will take for the campus to decarbonize equitably. Panelists shared their insights into how much carbon the botanical gardens’ natural areas and other Cornell forests are capturing, how the data was obtained and what the numbers mean to Cornell’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2035.

As Ithaca’s average temperatures have increased by approximately 2 F since 1970, Cornell’s Botanic Gardens utilize some of the world’s most efficient carbon capture technology — plants. The Cornell Botanic Gardens serve as a critical carbon sink that absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis, converting it into organic matter that is stored in the soil and plant tissues. Each year, the forests, shrublands and meadows capture enough carbon to make a substantial contribution toward achieving a carbon-neutral campus. 

The Natural Areas sequester 10,685 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

“[This accounts for] 5.2 percent of the University’s total carbon emissions, or 40 percent of faculty and staff vehicle commuting, or 43 percent of air travel carbon emissions”, said Todd Bitner, director of natural areas at the Cornell Botanic Gardens. 

With the effects of climate change on our local ecosystems, the botanical gardens are taking action to ensure that accumulated carbon remains in its natural storage areas while simultaneously finding methods to accelerate the removal of additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

“We are integrating new approaches through demonstrations, research and classes to export new knowledge to others to increase the impact beyond Cornell,” said panelist David Weinstein, emeritus senior research associate and forest ecologist in Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. 

To fully leverage the carbon sequestration potential of the botanical gardens, Cornell has initiated a plan that focuses on enhancing and preserving the gardens’ natural areas. This includes implementing better management practices for sustainable land use, limiting soil disturbance, controlling invasive species and utilizing prescribed fire to promote healthy vegetation growth. 

By employing these measures, the botanical gardens can continue to sequester carbon and provide additional benefits to the local community, such as improved water quality, flood regulation and biodiversity conservation.

Serving as a model for other institutions and organizations seeking to address climate change through nature-based solutions, Cornell hopes these measures are a testament to the power of natural ecosystems in finding solvency and underscore the importance of preserving and protecting our planet’s natural resources, Weinstein said in the webinar.