Bury the Christmas Tree to save Planet Earth

Annals of defriending, installment #4681…

A friend posted a picture of the impeccably dressed family standing in front of a burning fireplace: “Not to distract from the impeachment bonanza, but Merry Christmas and Happy other Holidays!”

This garnered nearly 200 Facebook likes and 40+ positive comments, e.g., “Beautiful Family! Happy Holidays.”

On the other hand, me:

Looks like carbon that had been sequestered in those logs is now being released into the atmosphere. You are stealing [depicted boy] and [depicted girl’s] childhood. HOW DARE YOU?!?

Then a follow-up:

May I gently suggest that next year’s photo depict the family digging a hole in which to bury the wood instead. [Link to “Carbon sequestration via wood burial”]

From the cited 2008 paper:

Here a carbon sequestration strategy is proposed in which certain dead or live trees are harvested via collection or selective cutting, then buried in trenches or stowed away in above-ground shelters. The largely anaerobic condition under a sufficiently thick layer of soil will prevent the decomposition of the buried wood. Because a large flux of CO2 is constantly being assimilated into the world’s forests via photosynthesis, cutting off its return pathway to the atmosphere forms an effective carbon sink.

Based on data from North American logging industry, the cost for wood burial is estimated to be $14/tCO2($50/tC), lower than the typical cost for power plant CO2 capture with geological storage. The cost for carbon sequestration with wood burial is low because CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by the natural process of photosynthesis at little cost. The technique is low tech, distributed, easy to monitor, safe, and reversible, thus an attractive option for large-scale implementation in a world-wide carbon market.

The proposal is to (1) collect dead trees on the forest floor and (2) selectively log live trees. Then the tree trunks are either buried in the trenches dug on the forest floor (burial) or suitable landfills, or logs piled up above ground sheltered away from rain (Fig. 3). The buried woody material will have significantly longer residence time, and it effectively transfers carbon from a relatively fast decomposing pool (about 10 years) to a much slower carbon pool (100–1000 years or longer).

The 10 GtC y-1 dead wood production rate could also be enhanced by active forest management. Instead of waiting for the trees to die, one can also harvest relatively mature trees via techniques such as selective cutting. At first sight, this seems to be a carbon source as live trees take up CO2. However, if trees are selected properly, it may lead to an overall sink because younger forest tends to be more productive, and somewhere in the development stage, productivity significantly exceeds respiration and decomposition loss [24]. Since the less productive trees that do not do well compete for light and other resources, their removal will leave younger trees to grow more vigorously in the gaps, forming a net carbon sink. In an even-aged forest, self-thinning is a major step of the secondary succession in which a major fraction of young trees die to give way to other trees. In this case much younger trees can be selectively cut or collected after death.

It is an interesting question whether this can be a useful geoengineering strategy. Readers: Do you know of newer research in this area?

For trees that have already been cut, however, like the 25-30 million Christmas trees (source) sold each year in the U.S., wouldn’t burial of the trees do more to save the planet than a lot of the empty environmental gestures in which Americans engage?

In other Christmas news, a Facebook meme that seems to have been widely shared…

Boston Museum of Fine Arts tree, in which flags of Islamic nations are featured on a Christmas tree:

18 thoughts on “Bury the Christmas Tree to save Planet Earth

  1. That Facebook meme was sexist and offensive.
    Every child knows (go ahead and ask them) that Santa’s sleigh is pulled by transgender deer and not by cisgender females.

  2. Philip, you’ve turned into a reliable curmudgeon. Christmas trees are grown on farms and are no different from any other crop we consume, except perhaps a longer growing cycle. But I suspect you already knew that, and were just being snarky.

  3. @Grumpy why does it matter if wood is grown on a farm? Isn’t the farm tree taking carbon out of the atmosphere as it grows?

    • Dazed, Anonymous: I think the idea behind the cited paper is that burying wood will remove it from the short-term carbon cycle. (I had the idea independently on seeing my friend’s family Christmas post, but I had not tried to calculate if it could be a practical means of carbon sequestration. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_sequestration puts it most succinctly: “Burying biomass (such as trees) directly, mimics the natural processes that created fossil fuels. Landfills also represent a physical method of sequestration.” Wikipedia mentions “Biochar burial” that is more sophisticated.

      Part of the quote in the original post: “the buried woody material will have significantly longer residence time, and it effectively transfers carbon from a relatively fast decomposing pool (about 10 years) to a much slower carbon pool (100–1000 years or longer).”

      If we can put carbon away for 1,000 years that gives us plenty of time to come up with other technologies and/or for the Milankovitch cycles to cool off Spaceship Earth.

  4. It appears that many national flags are on that tree. What is the point of noting some of them are flags of Islamic countries? Perhaps the relevance is that Islam considers Jesus to be a prophet.

    Also, was the how dare you thing supposed to be funny? Did anyone consider it to be?

  5. @Philg:

    Have you tried to quantify the defriending rate over the past three years? Are there any particular subjects that work more reliably?

    • Alex: Facebook does not tell a user when he/she/zir/they has been defriended. One would have to obsessively check one’s friend count and I am not that passionate about Facebook!

  6. Before you bury the tree, be sure you already own the pick and shovel. No telling how much CO2 would be emitted making that steel and milling the handles.

  7. This rings a bell. Ning Zeng! There were a lot of articles and interest about this subject back in 2008. I remember reading an article about it then, I recall it because of his name (my actual mnemonic was his initials “NZ” which are kinda-sorta 90 degrees rotated from each other, don’t ask me why I thought of it that way) and it’s not as hot right now at least based on my cursory Googling. Zeng is kind of the rock star of this idea. He’s an atmospheric scientist at U. of MD College Park. Here’s another example from The New Republic:


    I suspect this hasn’t received as much attention recently because of the caveats noted in the article and particularly the possibility that doing this would detract from other, more radical efforts to transform the world’s energy supply by giving people a “false” sense of having done something. The impetus now is to totally transform the world’s energy first, that’s Priority One. They wouldn’t want to start aggressively burying trees and give people the idea they don’t need to do anything else, at least that’s my conjecture. And Greta and her stolen childhood! She’s a much more sympathetic and media-exploitable figure than some Chinese intellectual from the U. of MD. You know how it is: the nerds do all the work, write the papers, etc., and nobody cares, but you get one pissed-off adolescent in an Eames chair to rant and rave at the UN and they’re the Person of the Year. Meanwhile the nerds go back to pondering whether or not peer review isn’t just a positive feedback mechanism to enshrine mediocrity, or if it actually keeps uninteresting papers from distracting serious thinkers at important conferences.

    Here’s Dr. Zeng’s page. Check the “In the News” link, he was apparently giving talks about it as recently as 2016.


    He’s pretty frequently cited and has appeared on/in NPR, Discovery News, New Scientist, New Republic, etc., etc., and I guess he would know about as much as anyone.

    “Seminar on carbon sequestration via wood harvest and storage (WHS) at the Eni Foundation, July 2016 FEEM website [pdf]”


    • Alex: That’s the same paper cited in the original post. So the idea hasn’t caught on, well, like wildfire.

  8. The Boston museum is going to start a war & endanger the lives of soldiers with that tree. They should have gotten an act of congress. When was this impeachment crisis? All the news cares about is Iran.

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