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Over the course of more than 20 years, a recent Harvard Study found that with longer growing seasons eastern forests are sequestering more carbon than ever before—as much as 26 million metric tons more. And the Massachusetts forests were already doing a lot to offset our carbon footprint—about 10 percent of statewide annual carbon emissions are sucked up, and stored, by trees during photosynthesis.

Photo courtesy of Amy Mahler

Photo courtesy of Amy Mahler

Using remote sensing and on the ground sampling, the study found that with changing weather patterns the New England growing season has gotten longer. On average, both carbon uptake and photosynthesis have begun .67 days earlier each year.

An elongated growing season is not a new discovery, however, its effects on carbon sequestration is. Prior to this model it was not clear if this would lead to net positive carbon storage, meaning that forests absorb more carbon than they naturally release. It was also possible that, as a result of the longer growing season, trees would also naturally release more carbon.  Previous models were not sure if increased photosynthesis would outweigh increased respiration.

This study, however, found that the increased carbon assimilation and biomass growth outweighed the carbon released naturally from the forests. Meaning, for similar temperate forests, warmer weather could lead to a net positive carbon storage.

While this increased carbon intake is certainly a good thing, the founders of the study warn that the model may not be long term. While warmer temperatures may increase the growing season, they also leave our forests more vulnerable to drought, fires, disease, and insect infestations. Furthermore, 26 million metric tons is just a small percentage of overall carbon emissions. Globally, we emitted approximately 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2013.

To understand the long term effects of a warmer climate on our forests, more research is needed. However, in the meantime, there are a few things you can do to improve your own carbon foot print, such as hang your clothing instead of using the dryer and removing your name from unwanted catalogs. Small actions do make a difference. According to the National Forest Foundation, if just 20 percent of Americans switched their bills to online statements, it would save 1.8 million trees. And now, we have more incentive than ever before to save the trees and protect our forestry.

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Nicole Levin is a rising senior at Harvard College where she studies government. She is an editor for the Harvard Crimson and writes for the Harvard Lampoon, a comedy magazine on campus. She is from Fairfield, California, home of the Jelly Belly Factory and her dog, Baby.

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