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WVU studies climate change potential for carbon-hungry grasses planted on former mine lands

Article written for WVU Today by Cassie Rice

C4 grasses

WVU researchers are studying plots of switchgrass and miscanthus planted at a former surface mine site in Upshur County to determine whether the plants are more effective at capturing and storing carbon in soil than other grasses. 

West Virginia University researchers are exploring the potential for carbon-hungry grasses planted on reclaimed mine land to help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. 

A $35,000 grant from the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation supports the two-year study by the National Mine Land Reclamation Center at WVU’s West Virginia Water Research Institute

Jason Fillhart, WVWRI watershed project manager, said the research team will study grasses planted 12 years ago by WVU researchers investigating biofuels at a former surface mine site in Upshur County. The goal is to determine how much carbon has been captured and stored as soil organic matter since the grasses were planted and whether different types of vegetation are more effective at capturing and storing carbon in soil.  

“With a lot of these marginally reclaimed lands, if we can more efficiently plant these to sequester more carbon, that’s one step closer to becoming carbon neutral to offset our carbon footprint,” Fillhart said. “Carbon credit trading is going to be a very big commodity in the future, so this is really just a small piece of what we expect will eventually be a much larger research project.” 

The current study targets 20 one-acre plots of switchgrass and miscanthus, described as C4 plants because the first carbon compound produced during photosynthesis contains four carbon atoms. Most of the world’s plants are C3 plants, which instead produce a three-carbon compound.  

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the WVWRI, said C4 plants are much more efficient at photosynthesis, generating three to four times more plant material per acre than C3 plants.  

“Corn and sugar cane are good examples of C4 plants,” Ziemkiewicz said. “That’s why they grow so rapidly. Switchgrass was one of the native grasses that made up the pre-colonization North American prairie ecosystem. Unlike corn, though, it has very deep roots which transfer carbon into the soil. Unless it’s cultivated, the organic carbon stays put. Our Corn Belt has been mining this organic matter since the steel plow was invented.” 

With student support, WVU researchers plan to collect and analyze samples from the C4 plant roots, shoots and surrounding soil over two growing seasons to determine how much carbon is stored in the soil profile. Their findings may identify new opportunities to repurpose an estimated eight billion acres of land once used for surface mining in the United States.  

“This site used to contribute to carbon in the atmosphere, but now it sequesters carbon, and hopefully, with these C4 grasses, more than the typical reclamation plants would,” Rachel Spirnak, a WVWRI water resources specialist, said. “If that’s true, then we can suggest that other sites do the same thing and more carbon will be sequestered, which will help with climate change.” 

The study will document how much organic carbon is stored in an acre of mined land and the most efficient way to establish those plant communities. Fillhart said he will then work to secure a larger grant that allows researchers to expand to additional plots on reclaimed mine land in other areas of the state and elsewhere.  

The project marks WVWRI’s third partnership with the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation, which funds work aimed at reducing the impact of energy development and use in Appalachia. The nonprofit organization was created following a settlement with Longview Power, setting up a mitigation fund to correct the damage to the environment caused by the mining and burning of coal.  

To date, the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation has awarded more $1.3 million to projects support its mission. The latest grant was awarded through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University. 

To read the article in WVU Today, click here