Grasslands, Underdogs & Hope


Butterflies congregating on the Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie, considered one of the largest and best northern tallgrass prairies in the United States, designated by Minnesota as a state natural area. Photo © Richard Hamilton Smith

We agree with the sentiment, never underestimate the underdog; more often than not, we root for the underdog. Thanks to the Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science for the reminder, in an ecological context:

Can Grasslands, The Ecosystem Underdog, Play an Underground Role in Climate Solutions?

By Marissa Ahlering

Never underestimate the underdog — in sports or in ecosystems. My favorite baseball teams, the Royals and the Cubs, reminded us of this over the last two years, and prairies (the underdog in the world series of ecosystems) proved this again recently in an analysis demonstrating that grasslands have a role to play in our climate change solutions (Ahlering et al. 2016).

Globally, grasslands are one of the most converted and least protected ecosystems (Hoekstra et al. 2005). The rich soil of Earth’s grasslands plays an important role in feeding the world and because of this much of our grassland has been converted to row-crop agriculture. Loss of grasslands is a big problem for two reasons:

  • The continual conversion of native grassland puts all grassland dependent species at risk;
  • The rich soil releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere (literally) when converted.

The ability of ecosystems to store carbon is one of the most promising natural solutions to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Strategies that avoid conversion of ecosystems take advantage of this natural ability to offset carbon emissions. Forests have long been recognized for their carbon storage potential. But what about grasslands?

Despite the lack of trees, grasslands store a substantial amount of carbon. Imagine if the trees in a forest grew into the soil instead of towards the sun. This is what the underground world of a grassland looks like. Grasslands are an underground forest of carbon. Native prairie plants have long, dense root systems that store carbon themselves as well as cycle carbon between the above ground vegetation and the soil for storage…


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