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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Iowa: The Power of Prairies

Root length and complexity

This root illustration shows the variation in root system length and complexity for several common prairie species. Download. Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Biologists at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Iowa have been studying carbon sequestration on the prairie for more than 15 years. Their research has been the springboard for a national research effort which is based on the idea that grasslands have the capacity to store large amounts of carbon.

The ability to store carbon is a valuable ecological service in today’s changing climate. Carbon, which is emitted both naturally and by human activities such as burning coal to create electricity, is a greenhouse gas that is increasing in the Earth’s atmosphere. Reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, a group of more than 2,000 climate scientists from around the world, say increased greenhouse gases are causing global warming, which is leading to sea level rise, higher temperatures, and altered rain patterns.

Most of the prairie’s carbon sequestration happens below ground, where prairie roots can dig into the soil to depths up to 15 feet and more. Prairies can store much more carbon below ground than a forest can store above ground, according to Dr. Cynthia A. Cambardella, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment.

To quantify this information, Cambardella and a team of research scientists collected soil cores to a depth of four feet from each of 19 reconstructed prairies ranging in age from one to 17 years within the Neal Smith Refuge in May of 2000, 2005, and 2010.

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