How Texas Prairies Could Help Combat Climate Change

Sourced from the Texas Observer

The Amazon rainforest has been burning particularly intensely this year—so much so that the smoke from the fires obscures the last hours of daylight in São Paulo. While forest fires aren’t unusual in this heavily wooded region of Brazil, many of the fires this time were started intentionally, to clear the land for agricultural pastures. This is particularly worrisome when it comes to climate change. Forests serve an important ecological function as a carbon sink, with trees converting carbon dioxide into sugar that sustains their lives, and releasing oxygen, the element that sustains ours. With an ever-increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, forests are more important than ever.

But thousands of miles away from the burning forests, most Texans are living, working, and driving on top of what used to be another very effective carbon sink: tall grass prairies. Miles of bluestem and Indian grass, switchgrass, and dropseed once covered 90 percent of the state, from the Panhandle to the Red River, down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, the state’s prairies have largely been paved over to make room for the urban and suburban sprawl of some of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Where urbanization hasn’t yet taken hold, the deep, rich grassland soil has been converted to farmland for monoculture croplands like cotton, hay, and corn. Less than 1 percent of Texas’ original native prairies remain intact.

Protecting the prairies might not seem as urgent as saving the Amazon, an area that has become symbolic for the global environmental movement. “A lot of people don’t understand prairies—‘What’s the big deal, it’s a patch of grass,’” said Kirsti Harms, the executive director of the Native Prairies Association of Texas. But as the climate becomes increasingly hostile to trees, which need reliable rainfall and milder temperatures to thrive, grasslands may emerge as a far more resilient ecosystem. A 2018 study from the University of California, Davis found that grasslands in California were a more reliable carbon sink in nearly every climate future modeled, from periodic small droughts to extended megadroughts that can last more than two decades.

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