Terrestrial carbon losses from mountaintop coal mining offset regional forest carbon sequestration in the 21st century

J. Elliott Campbell, James F. Fox, Peter M. Acton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Studies that quantify the spatial and temporal variability of carbon sources and sinks provide process-level information for the prediction of future levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide as well as verification of current emission agreements. Assessments of carbon sources and sinks for North America that compare top-down atmospheric constraints with bottom-up inventories find particularly large carbon sinks in the southeastern US. However, this southeastern US sink may be impacted by extreme land-use disturbance events due to mountaintop coal mining (MCM). Here we apply ecosystem modeling and field experiment data to quantify the potential impact of future mountaintop coal mining on the carbon budget of the southern Appalachian forest region. For projections based on historical mining rates, grassland reclamation, and the continued regrowth of un-mined forests, we find that the southern Appalachian forests switch from a net carbon sink to a net carbon source by year 2025-33 with a 30%-35% loss in terrestrial carbon stocks relative to a scenario with no future mining by the year 2100. Alternatively, scenarios of forest sequestration due to the effect of CO2 fertilization result in a 15%-24% loss in terrestrial carbon stocks by the year 2100 for mining scenarios relative to scenarios with no future mining. These results suggest that while power plant stack emissions are the dominant life-cycle stage in coal-fired electricity, accounting for mountaintop coal mining in bottom-up inventories may be a critical component of regional carbon budgets.

Original languageEnglish
Article number045701
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science (all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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