Duke Farms is teaming with Rutgers University to explore a crucial issue facing New Jersey and the rest of the globe: How much can natural solutions contribute to offsetting climate change?
Over the course of the five-year project, Duke Farms hopes to turn its 2,742 acres of forests, grasslands, farmland, and wetlands into an experimental carbon sink, pulling global-warming carbon pollution out of the atmosphere and storing it in the plants, trees, and soil of the four-square-mile property.
The research is important to New Jersey, a coastal state urgently seeking ways to adapt to climate change after a series of extreme storms, including Hurricane Sandy, have underscored the vulnerabilities facing the state from climate change.
On the cutting edge
“It’s pretty cutting-edge and new,’’ says Michael Catania, executive director of Duke Farms. The project’s goal is to use natural systems on the property to demonstrate strategies that could be emulated by other public and private landowners, he said.
“This is an experiment. We don’t have any idea if we can do it,’’ said Catania. The Duke foundation is funding the first year of the five year-effort with a $250,000 grant to Rutgers.
Some research indicates it has huge potential. A study published in Science Advances projected natural climate solutions (NCSs) could offset up to 21 percent of current annual net greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States at a time when global-warming pollution is climbing.
Globally, land and ocean ecosystems act as carbon sinks, offsetting 43 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, the main greenhouse gas. Better land management offers a potentially more cost-effective way of offsetting climate-change pollution than technological solutions advanced by the energy sector, according to some experts.
The study identified nearly two dozen options for improving land management, including restoration of forests, grasslands, and wetlands, as well as better agricultural management, like planting cover crops when fields are normally bare.
Putting a team together
A team of researchers recruited from Rutgers University are beginning to gather baseline data on the presence of carbon in woodlands, wetlands, and soils throughout the property.
“We are really, really excited about it,’’ Marjorie Kaplan of the Rutgers Climate Institute said about the research effort. “It’s a little bit of a closed loop,’’ she added, meaning Duke Farms controls the land on the property and offers a wide range of options for studying carbon sequestration — the storage of carbon in the soil and trees for lengthy periods.
Eventually, the project aims to identify how much carbon is stored in the forests, soils, and other plant life and the net greenhouse-gas emissions stemming from the operating of Duke Farms, which draws about 400,000 visitors a year.
At some point, Duke Farms is hoping to learn how much of its property — bigger than eight of the 21 towns in Somerset County — could act as a natural sink to offset greenhouse-gas emissions and what they could do to enhance this capability in the future.
The project may lead to changes in land management at the property, Catania said. About 40 percent of Duke Farms is woodland, the largest single source of storing carbon. It also has about 1,100 acres in farmland and another 400 acres of wetlands, according to Catania.
How extensive these changes may be is uncertain, given the foundation’s overriding mission of environmental stewardship and sustainability development. For instance, the mission includes habitat protection, such as the grasslands that support endangered bird species like the eastern meadowlark, American kestrel, and the bobolink.