Estimating aboveground live understory vegetation carbon in the United States

Kristofer D. Johnson, Grant M. Domke, Matthew B. Russell, Brian Walters, John Hom, Alicia Peduzzi, Richard Birdsey, Katelyn Dolan, Wenli Huang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Despite the key role that understory vegetation plays in ecosystems and the terrestrial carbon cycle, it is often overlooked and has few quantitative measurements, especially at national scales. To understand the contribution of understory carbon to the United States (US) carbon budget, we developed an approach that relies on field measurements of understory vegetation cover and height on US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) subplots. Allometric models were developed to estimate aboveground understory carbon. A spatial model based on stand characteristics and remotely sensed data was also applied to estimate understory carbon on all FIA plots. We found that most understory carbon was comprised of woody shrub species (64%), followed by nonwoody forbs and graminoid species (35%) and seedlings (1%). The largest estimates were found in temperate or warm humid locations such as the Pacific Northwest and southeastern US, thus following the same broad trend as aboveground tree biomass. The average understory aboveground carbon density was estimated to be 0.977 Mg ha-1, for a total estimate of 272 Tg carbon across all managed forest land in the US (approximately 2% of the total aboveground live tree carbon pool). This estimate is more than twice as low as previous FIA modeled estimates that did not rely on understory measurements, suggesting that this pool may currently be overestimated in US National Greenhouse Gas reporting.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number125010
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 12 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This project was supported by the US Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis program and NASA grant 14 C MS14-39 (Hurtt, principal investigator).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd.


  • allometric models
  • forest carbon
  • understory


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