Prairies are Part of the Solution to the Climate Change Crisis

By Published On: September 18, 2023Categories: Climate change and ecology

No one can deny–it was REALLY HOT this summer. And dry. In fact, it was the hottest summer on record since the late 1800’s when temperatures were first systematically collected and recorded. If you have ever spent time inside a greenhouse on a hot, sunny day, you understand something about the “greenhouse effect.” Energy from the sun shines through the transparent covering, but the reflected energy cannot pass back out, heating the inside of the greenhouse. Carbon-containing gases, such as CO2, act like the cover of a greenhouse. Air temperatures rise across the globe. Ocean temperatures rise. Weather patterns become more extreme and unpredictable.

Nations around the world are grappling with how to reduce the amount of CO2 and other gases that we emit. Another part of the solution is to trap or fix that emitted carbon in vegetation and in the ground. Planting trees and maintaining healthy forests is one way to use photosynthesis to fix that carbon dioxide into harmless organic matter. In fact, California and other entities around the globe have included the planting of trees as a form of cap-and-trade offsets to monetize the value of trees in fighting climate change. But as researchers at the University of California, Davis have recently shown, trees may not be the best choice in a warming climate.

Trees store most of their fixed carbon in their trunks, branches, and leaves—above ground. In a warming climate, forests are stressed by drought and wildfires. Burning trees release carbon back into the atmosphere, only making the problem worse. Grasslands, on the other hand, sequester (store) the fixed carbon mostly underground—80-90 percent of it. And fire is a natural part of the prairie ecosystem. When a fire sweeps through a grassland, it only burns the above ground thatch and leaves. The root systems, which can reach 10-14 feet deep into the soil, are untouched. In fact, burning invigorates prairie plants. New root growth following a fire causes a net carbon gain that fixes permanently in the soil, outweighing the amount of carbon lost above ground.

Holland Wildflower Farm recently had the opportunity to provide native grass and wildflower seed for a large prairie restoration project in the Southeastern US. Although we often think of this region as being dominated by forests, it actually was home to over a million acres of tallgrass prairie. Unlike the horizon-to-horizon prairies of the Great Plains, it existed in smaller tracts, many of which were plowed under for cotton, rice, and soybean production. Now, some former grassland acreage is being returned to native prairie and we are proud to be a part of the effort. Besides helping to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, native grasses and wildflowers provide habitat for pollinators and all kinds of wildlife.

Even small prairie plantings of an acre or less can help to provide a better climate future for those who come after us. Be a part of the solution—Plant A Prairie!

Tallgrass prairie in Osage Co., Oklahoma.

Tallgrass prairie in Osage Co., Oklahoma.