Rising Seas Affect Forests & Carbon – Increasing Wood Construction Can Offset Emissions

An overflight shows some of the damage that Hurricane Sandy caused when it hit the east coast at the end of October, 2012. US Air Force and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Collaboratively written by: Jennifer Moore Meyers, Southern Research Station, and Amy Androff, Forest Products Laboratory

A new study by the USDA Forest Service considers the impacts of sea level rise on forest products and carbon storage.

“Rising sea levels are exposing a larger and larger share of coastal population to increased coastal flooding risk, threatening the lives and properties of coastal residents, and generating far-reaching economic and ecological consequences,” says Prakash Nepal, Research Economist at the Forest Products Laboratory and lead author of the study.

As sea level rise continues to damage houses and other structures in coastal areas, it will also create increased demand for wood products used in housing construction to accommodate displaced persons, according to the new research.

“Our study provides a more accurate assessment of the costs of potential housing losses in the United States and globally. This sort of information could help policymakers decide on the best course of action to adapt to and mitigate the effects of rising seas and a warming climate,” says Jeffrey Prestemon, co-author and Senior Research Forester and Forest Economist with the Southern Research Station.

By 2050, 71 million new units will be built. Two-thirds of these homes will be located in Asia, according to study projections. Extra wood products to meet this demand could represent a 4% increase in total wood consumption, along with increased forest product prices – which can motivate countries to increase timber harvest and consume, produce, and trade more forest products. More timber removals can lead to declines in forest biomass and carbon.

A ghost forest on Capers Island, South Carolina. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Conversely, price increases could also lead to expansion of forest area, especially where private forest landowners are motivated or additional public investments are made. “The agency can mitigate the carbon losses by stepping up efforts to plant trees and make our forests more productive,” adds Prestemon.

Globally, carbon losses through sea level rise may be offset by increased carbon storage in wood products. The substitution of wood for non-wood building materials is the single biggest way that carbon emissions could be reduced as a result of the housing destruction created by rising seas, the study finds.

“The forest products sector further contributes to lower carbon emissions when wood is substituted for more carbon intensive non-wood materials in construction, such as steel and concrete,” adds Nepal.

Linda Joyce with the Rocky Mountain Research Station and Kenneth Skog with the Forest Products Laboratory are also co-authors of the study. Read more in the Global Environmental Change article.


To find out more about the extraordinary contributions our researchers are making to the world of wood science, please visit the Forest Products Laboratory at https://www.fpl.fs.usda.gov/ 

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