Scientists at the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area  are leading the way on investigating engineered and nature-based solutions to achieve a carbon-negative future.

Meeting future climate goals requires removing and sequestering existing atmospheric carbon, and scaling up technologies that prevent new carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere. Our holistic approach considers carbon management from many angles, including managing land and forest use, capturing point-of-source emissions, and storing carbon underground.

Close-up of a plug of soil next to a shovel in an agricultural field

Achieving carbon neutrality requires improving how well climate models predict the exchange of carbon among ocean, atmosphere, and land. EESA scientists are at the forefront of measuring this exchange at ecosystem level and regional scale, and developing models that help understand and predict the link between climate and carbon, energy, and water fluxes. They also monitor and forecast carbon’s behavior underground with a kind of seismic echolocation that allows researchers to watch how carbon moves and predict its future behavior. Combined with computer modeling, this capability is essential to making sure that carbon dioxide stored underground is effectively kept out of the atmosphere.

Two women setting-up a large circular apparatus on the ground in a forest clearing

Soils play a critical role in the global climate system by storing carbon dioxide. Because soils contain three times the amount of carbon as the atmosphere, the release of even a small fraction of this carbon could profoundly impact global climate. EESA scientists develop innovative ways to track and predict soil carbon response to warming and events like wildfire and drought. They conduct soil-warming experiments to evaluate how climate change affects soil’s ability to store carbon; develop models to assess how different conditions impact soil carbon in tropical ecosystems; and study Arctic soils to explore what abrupt thaw would mean for carbon release.

A greenhouse full of trashcan-sized containers of soil used in mesocosm experiments

The transition to a carbon-neutral economy requires widespread deployment of energy sources other than fossil fuels, zero-emission transportation options, carbon capture and sequestration, and carbon dioxide removal through natural process and direct air capture. We conduct fundamental and applied earth science research relevant to capturing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and durably storing it in geologic, bio-based, and ocean reservoirs or in value-added products to create negative emissions. Additionally, our scientists are investigating suitable rock types and new methods to enhance soils’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide and methane using enhanced rock-weathering technologies.

A woman stands at top of a slope in the distance with a bundle of fiber optic cables running from her hand to the foreground right in front of the camera

The amount of carbon removed from ambient air and stored underground must increase 125-fold by 2050 to achieve net zero emissions, and getting there requires addressing concerns over safety, not the least of which is the potential for CO2 leakage. EESA scientists conduct highly controlled field experiments by activating and monitoring geologic faults to explore how to safely inject liquid carbon dioxide into underground rock.They use fiber-optic sensors and other instruments at underground rock laboratories to gather a real-time picture of changes in underground rock which can be used to help confirm that injected gas isn’t leaking.

An oil rig and equipment in a field at dusk

EESA scientists are applying tools and methods they’ve used to track and monitor carbon dioxide to detect methane emissions. Although shorter-lived in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, methane’s global warming potential is significantly more impactful. It is also the primary contributor of ground-level ozone, which causes 1+ million premature deaths every year and millions more chronic diseases. Our experts are leading efforts in regions where methane concentrations are known to be high, such as California’s Southern San Joaquin Valley. Where they monitor emissions via towers, aircraft surveys, and intense field campaigns to locate their origins in an effort to quickly stop the emissions.