Beyond Your Backyard: Prairies do that

Megan Benage

I feel like I blinked and suddenly it’s November! I’m always impressed with how quickly time can move and how slow it can seem under other circumstances (ahem is it 4:30 yet on a work day?). I’ve spent the summer how I spend most summers—immersed in the prairies and fens of southern Minnesota. Now that the field season has wound down I’ve begun reading more. Something I find almost impossible to do when the weather is warm and the outdoors are beckoning.

I read several articles the other day that fascinated me. They were about prairies ability to cool the earth. And not just any prairie, healthy intact, highly diverse prairies. In other words, those that have never been broken by a plow (remnant prairies) and remain connected across the landscape. After all, diversity and connection are the two pillars of health. One of the articles said that as prairies expanded over the last 20-30 million years ago that some scientists believe they were responsible for driving the cooling of the planet because of an albedo effect. Essentially grasslands are lighter in color than forests so they reflect more sunlight.

This is where I started to get ideas, but I went on reading. One of the main points of the article was to show that grasslands are superior carbon sinks because they store most of their carbon in their roots instead of storing it above ground in leaves, stems, or shoots. So even when a prairie burns, the majority of the carbon it has stored is still held safely underground. One article estimated that if you combined all native prairie in the country you could store 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year! In 2018, the 29US generated 7 billion metric tons. So if you think about it, despite much of our prairies being drastically reduced (it’s estimated that we’ve lost 82-99% of the tallgrass prairie depending on where you are in the country. In Minnesota prairies used to cover 1/3 of the state and now we have just over 1% remaining), they are still able to mitigate 1/7 of our carbon output. Color me impressed.

Now the wheels were really turning and I really had ideas. While we know there is no substitute for native prairie and even prairie reconstructions are not as good as remnants at storing carbon, I still can’t help but think that if we can connect more prairie, keep it as diverse as possible, that we may just have a chance. And that not only gives me hope—it strengthens my purpose.

One of the most difficult things about climate change is feeling helpless in the face of it. But right here is something in our power to do and make a real difference. So if you happen to be one of the lucky ones that has a remnant prairie on your property, consider protecting it. Then think about connecting it to other grasslands. And if you don’t happen to have a prairie, this is the perfect opportunity to practice a little prairie restoration by planting prairie plants! Every little patch of grassland matters at this point.

Protection, connection, and restoration of the prairie is how we save ourselves. What are you waiting for? Hope is in your hands and what better way to head into winter than with dreams of spring, soil under your fingertips, and freshly planted prairie seedlings steadily putting down their lifesaving roots.

UW Mad Science: Grasslands among the best landscapes to curb climate change