funding organizations

This project seeks to advance the University of Maryland’s goal to become climate neutral by accurately adding land-based carbon into its annual carbon footprint. While much progress has been made to lower University emissions across multiple energy sectors, tree conservation or restoration could further enhance these goals with high-resolution measurements of forest carbon gains (or losses) at 90 square meter resolution. As a living document, the University’s Climate Action Plan can also be further developed to reflect our commitment to maintaining or increasing our natural carbon storage capacities via informed land-use decisions. Additionally, this work builds UMD’s capacity to purchase forest-based carbon credits from reliable projects located in Maryland using a consistent scientific approach.

Faculty and students in the Department of Geographical Sciences (GEOG) have been working with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) for nearly eight years, under the auspices of NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, to implement this carbon monitoring science at the state level and advance the goals of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act (Hurtt et al. 2019). Further, we have expanded our work with member states of the U.S. Climate Alliance (USCA) to implement this same technology regionally in support of annual carbon budgeting (Ma et al. 2021). By utilizing student support, we can help UMD “walk the walk” and advance our own forest climate goals in parallel with Maryland and other USCA states. The scope of this work also provides UMD the opportunity to influence and improve the carbon budgeting process of all universities that have pledged support through the Climate Leadership Commitments for the “Carbon Commitment.” 

Over three years, this project will move from prototype development to annual forest carbon reporting that can be readily included within the campus carbon budget and inform future land-use planning. It also maximizes integration with UMD’s current climate initiatives to advance campus carbon goals.

The five primary components of this work are:

  1. Historical AnalysisIn Year 1, we completed a historical analysis of forest change and associated change in carbon storage and sequestration capacity for nine years (2011-2019). A modeling protocol and python script were developed to allow this analysis to be completed annually using ArcGIS and based on available lidar data and optical imagery. In Years 2 and 3, we will further evaluate uncertainty in the derived annual forest carbon estimates relative to the availability and frequency of required data. Specifically, we plan to use Campus Arboretum data to explore potential gaps in tree cover change detection by existing remote sensing tools as well as further validate our current carbon flux estimates. This analysis will enable UMD to understand, in quantitative terms, the improvements offered by this prototype relative to other methods, and further clarify the carbon impact of our land-use decisions.

  2. Annual updatesAs optical imagery becomes available for 2020 and 2021 respectively, the annual forest carbon inventory will be calculated for campus utilizing the established methodology from Step 1. As was done for 2019 data, these estimates will be made available for inclusion in the University’s carbon budget process, maximizing student collaboration with the Office of Sustainability (OS) to further emphasize the accounting and planning support this analysis provides. We will continue to generate annual project reports and provide guidance on how forest carbon estimates can be used to build out the forestry component of our campus GHG inventory.

  3. Future land-use planning This work will also make transparent the carbon implications of land-use change relative to proposed campus development projects. As our University strives to become carbon neutral, we will quantify how the forest carbon wedge of our carbon budget could support this effort and offset the negative impacts of generated GHG emissions in other sectors. Initial work has been completed in Year 1 to clarify the boundaries of such a wedge, including “business-as-usual” and “full reforestation” scenarios. In Years 2 and 3 we plan to work closely with campus decision-makers to quantify a range of reforestation/afforestation scenarios on both the campus and university-owned and managed lands statewide.

  4. Informing SIMAP and the “Carbon Commitment” Working closely with GEOG and the Office of Sustainability, undergraduate students will continue to work along the science, management and policy interface, translating scientific assessment into carbon mitigation and management actions. Of particular importance is making sure all forest carbon estimates for UMD can have both campus-level outcomes (project components 2 and 3), as well as showcase UMD leadership towards achieving our “Carbon Commitment.” In Year 1, we presented our work to several schools participating in the Carbon Commitment and expect to continue and expand this engagement in Years 2 and 3. Specifically, we plan work with Second Nature, the non-profit which supports the Carbon Commitment, to discuss opportunities for including forest carbon estimates within SIMAP

  5. Quantifying potential carbon offsets in the state of MarylandAs we work to better account for UMD’s own land-use decisions, there is an adjacent opportunity to expand the application of these same data products to estimate the carbon impact of Maryland reforestation projects and advance opportunities to incorporate local carbon credits into UMD’s carbon offsetting program. The current supply of verified carbon credits from projects in Maryland is extremely low relative to University demand. Project certification and annual verification of credits generated by a given project can be very costly for potential project developers to secure given that traditional protocols focus on regular field-based measurements. While such practices are currently considered the "gold standard" due to accuracy, we seek to utilize high-resolution remote sensing and modeling to draft an innovative offset protocol that can achieve reliable estimates at a lower cost.

A special thanks to all the current and former undergraduate student team members:

  • Maddy Albee, Senior, ENSP/GIS
  • Rieley Auger, recent ENSP/GEOG alumna
  • Camille Hoffman Delett, recent ENSP/GEOG alumna & current MS student
  • Jordan Nicolette, recent ENSP/GEOG alumnus & current MSGIS student
  • Frances Marie Panday, Senior, ENSP/GEOG
  • Hilary Sandborn, recent GEOG/ANTH alumna

team meetings on zoom

Related publications:

Year 1 Project Summary

AGU 2020, Science and Society Session, ePoster

AGU Science and Society

Recent news articles:


Principal Investigator
Co-Principal Investigators
Project Sponsor
UMD Sustainability Fund