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Sierra Meadows Emit More Carbon Dioxide Than You'd Expect

Bree Zender
UNR Assistant Professor Ben Sullivan holds soil from the restored meadow.

When you think of the sources behind carbon dioxide emissions, you might think of cars and factories. But in the rural mountains of the Eastern Sierra, University of Nevada, Reno researchers are finding that much of the CO2 emissions come from an unlikely place: dried up meadows. KUNR's Bree Zender reports. 

When UNR PhD student Cody Reed first began studying this piece of land northeast of Susanville she said it was looking pretty dry and desolate.

"In 2015, [it] was the end of the drought. So everything was really dry," Reed said. "And you know, these meadows had been degraded for quite a while. So, we used to joke that they were the parking lots."

But a year later, the land is quite literally buzzing with new life. The grasses reach up beyond her knees. Cows and blue herons can be seen in the distance.

Credit Bree Zender
UNR PhD student Cody Reed assists undergraduate students in logging what kind of plants are now growing in the meadow.

Reed used a long metal tube to take samples of the soil, which she'll later test to find out how much carbon is present and compare it with the samples she took back two years ago. 

"All meadows in the Sierra Nevadas emit more carbon per year than all of the cars in Reno," Reed said.

...to be exact, it's closer to the greenhouse gas emissions of all the cars in the Reno-Sparks metro area.

Because they produce so much carbon dioxide, Reed's idea is to add more water to the soil so that more plants will grow. Here in this meadow, a human-made creek was filled in, and water was able to flow freely. The groundwater level rose, bringing life back to the area. In other words, the new plants add oxygen to the mix offsetting the carbon dioxide from the soil.

Ben Sullivan is an assistant professor with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science at UNR. He said when European settlers developed the land, they wanted to dry it out, in order to build new things on top of it.

"Meadows have been in a constant state of change for at least since settlement conditions in the Western US," Sullivan said. "[There's been] timber harvesting and railroad building, homesteading in the meadows and agriculture."

Credit Bree Zender
Reed and Sullivan have been studying this meadow near Susanville on and off since 2015. They have also recruited citizen scientists to help them study meadows throughout the Sierra Nevada region.

Sullivan and Reed said between 60 and 70 percent of meadows in the Sierra Nevada have been dried out through some sort of human development and officials in California and Nevada have shown interest in reversing that trend. He said restorations could be counted in reducing the state's overall carbon dioxide emissions.

But beyond studying carbon emission, Sullivan said continuing this research is important because there isn't much known about meadows in general.

"In our scientific world, you'll often hear about research in grasslands and you can read about research in wetlands. And both of those, we think we understand a decent amount about those," Sullivan said. "These meadows don't function truly like either of them."

In the meantime, Sullivan and Reed are attempting to get their findings published in a scientific magazine.

Bree Zender is a former host and reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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