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Deserts Capture and Store Atmospheric Carbon That Causes Climate Change

As natural disasters become more prevalent in our daily lives and in the news, humanity is forced to grapple with climate change and its devastating effects. It is therefore essential that society builds collective awareness of some of the challenges we are facing and works together to foster solutions. We need “all-hands-on-deck” to curb climate change before it becomes irreversible. This means that we must not forego any opportunity to address Earth’s climate crisis. While there is a meaningful push to conserve and restore our forests and oceans for their capacity to store carbon, deserts have been widely excluded from this conversation. Yet, our deserts contribute greatly to capturing carbon deep in the Earth’s crust and are key in our state’s fight against climate change.


Climate change is mostly attributed to a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect. While this process is naturally occurring, there has been an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide, over the past two centuries that has caused an imbalance in our atmosphere. In other words, human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, has increased the amount of CO2, and other gases, in the Earth’s atmosphere to above average causing the Earth’s temperature to change at an accelerated rate. An irrefutable amount of evidence has identified that climate change has cascading impacts on the health of ecosystems and their many inhabitants. In California, for example, droughts and wildfires have become increasingly frequent over the last three decades. These extreme incidents are just some of the impacts of climate change on the environment. In recent years, the state of California has acknowledged the threat that climate change poses to the well-being of its residents and has taken actions, through public policy, to address this imbalance.


Carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere through carbon sinks or carbon capture and storage. Carbon sinks are places that absorb more carbon than they release. These places take the form of soils, forests, and oceans. While both forests and oceans have been identified as strong reservoirs of carbon, there may be drawbacks to relying too heavily on these places.  According to a report by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), “[carbon dioxide] changes the chemistry of seawater, leading to ocean acidification,” so there is a steep cost to the health of this ecosystem and its inhabitants. As a result, we cannot depend solely on these places to offset the Earth’s carbon footprint. For California to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045, we will need to protect the State’s existing carbon reservoirs and explore alternative solutions to our current climate crisis.


We can build climate resilience through protecting our nation’s public lands. Results from a study conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School, titled “Carbon Sequestration in the U.S. National Parks: A Value Beyond Visitation”, closely examined public lands managed by the National Parks Service (NPS), and found that these public lands sequestered more than 14.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually and estimated the economic value of this sequestration to exceed $500 million per year. While this study does not account for public lands managed by other agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), it is a compelling metric for understanding the important role our nation’s public lands play in combating the impacts of climate change and the countless other benefits they provide.


Our public lands encompass our deserts as well as our forests. However, for many years, the desert’s role in reducing carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere was widely overlooked. Recently, a 2023 report by the Department of Water Resources’ Expert Advisory Committee (EAC) identified California’s deserts as an untapped tool in the State’s climate action. The report estimates that our deserts “store nearly ten percent of the state’s carbon.” In fact, several studies around the world suggest that deserts, like forests and oceans, have an enormous capacity to act as carbon sinks as well. The desert’s plants and soil microbes work in tandem to capture and process massive amounts of carbon dioxide and store it safely underground. This natural process, called carbon sequestration, is complex and takes hundreds of years to complete. However, it has the potential to store carbon and keep it from entering the Earth’s atmosphere for centuries. California’s deserts encompass about one-fourth of the state’s landscape; thus, safeguarding this region is essential to securing the state’s future.


In the desert, carbon sequestration occurs mostly underground, so it has gone undetected until recent  years. As a result, it has not received the same level of recognition that our forests and oceans have gained for performing this essential service. However, many desert advocates are pushing to change this narrative by bringing attention to the uniqueness of this ecosystem. For instance, desert plants, like the creosote bush, have adapted to their harsh environment by developing roots that extend deep underground. This allows them to access water and nutrients despite unfavorable living conditions. Creosote bushes are abundant in the desert and can potentially sequester carbon all year long. Moreover, the desert is full of incredible plants, including creosote,  that work holistically with their environment to photosynthesize and store carbon.


By highlighting the important role our public lands, especially our deserts, play in combating climate change, we hope that more people will be inspired to protect them from harmful activity. CalWild has been a strong advocate for safeguarding California’s forests and deserts for many years and continues to work diligently to protect the places we all love. Our work in the California desert spans  from the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 to today’s effort to designate the Chuckwalla National Monument, which would protect about 660,000 acres of public lands. The deserts we work hard to protect are brimming with life and a provide nature-based solution to the climate crisis. Sadly, California’s deserts are often misunderstood and under-appreciated, so they are constantly under threat. Our organization will continue to advocate for California’s beautiful landscapes.


Please join us in our effort to safeguard these places by signing this petition that urges President Biden to take action to designate the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument.