A research group has concluded that forests and other terrestrial ecosystems in the lower 48 states can sequester up to 40 percent of the nation’s fossil fuel carbon emissions, a larger amount than previously estimated – unless a drought or other major disturbance occurs.

Widespread droughts, such as those that occurred in 2002 and 2006, can cut the amount of carbon sequestered by about 20 percent, the scientists concluded in a recent study that was supported by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy.

The research, published by scientists from 35 institutions in the journal Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, was based on satellite measurements and dozens of environmental observation sites in the AmeriFlux network. Not all of this data had previously been incorporated into earlier estimates, and the new study provides one of the most accurate assessments to date of the nation’s carbon balance.

“With this data it appears that our forests and other vegetation can sequester as much as 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the lower 48 states,” said Beverly Law, a co-author of the study, professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University, and science team chair of the AmeriFlux network.

“That’s substantially higher than some previous estimates, which indicated these ecosystems could take up the equivalent of only about 30 percent of emissions or less,” Law said. “There’s still some uncertainty in these data, but it does appear that the terrestrial carbon sink is higher than believed in earlier studies.”