Evaluating the Effectiveness of Biochar for Carbon Sequestration, Soil Productivity, Water Retention, and Wildfire Risk Reduction

Park City, Utah

Featured image for the project, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Biochar for Carbon Sequestration, Soil Productivity, Water Retention, and Wildfire Risk Reduction

Photo Courtesy of Darcy Glenn


Although wildfires are a healthy part of many ecosystems in the Intermountain West, the risk from catastrophic wildfires continues to increase in communities like Park City, Utah, east of Salt Lake City. Bordered to the west by the Wasatch mountain range, Park City is known and prized for its outdoor recreation, with almost 10,000 acres of open space that provides access to ski slopes and miles of mountain biking trails. Years of fire suppression across the landscape coupled with a hotter and drier climate, as well as the continued development of subdivisions along the wildland urban interface present the challenge of trying to protect communities from fire danger in a way that does not deplete stored carbon from the landscape.

Park City has one of the most ambitious climate goals in North America, with a goal to be net-zero in carbon emissions and running off 100% renewable energy by 2022 for its municipal operations and 2030 community-wide. In addition to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration and regenerative management of soils are key strategies to become a carbon neutral community.

Park City has been developing a biochar program to increase the amount of carbon stored in soils and vegetation. Biochar is a charcoal-like material that is rich in carbon. It is created by the burning of brush and wood debris in the absence of oxygen (pyrolysis), and can be used in carbon sequestration efforts as well as improving overall soil health.

Park City was among eight communities to recently receive a 2019 Leader in Community Resilience Program award from the National League of Cities (NLC). The award will support the city’s work in developing a biochar program. Thus far, Park City’s biochar program has consisted of incorporating biochar into soils during community tree planting events sponsored by the City in the summers of 2017 and 2018. In 2019 the program was expanded to create biochar from waste wood collected to maintain defensible space1 around built structures. During May of 2019 a public demonstration was held to teach the public about how biochar is made, where it can be used on the landscape, and how it can reduce fire danger locally. Approximately 64 cubic feet of biochar was created. An additional demonstration event is planned for October 2019.

The Sustainability Department at Park City sees two main objectives for a Thriving Earth Exchange project. First, the group would like to develop a methodology for measuring soil carbon, as well as soil productivity and water retention over time, in particular to track change as biochar is applied to Park City’s open spaces. The second major objective is to gain an understanding of how much carbon can be sequestered from turning excess wildfire fuels into biochar and applying to open spaces, and if different application methods are more effective at carbon sequestration.

This will require on-the-ground field measurements collected across the span of two years to cover two growing seasons. They wish to share the results of this project with other communities across the West facing similar wildfire risks.

1Wikipedia page on defensible space https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defensible_space_(fire_control)

Project Outputs:

Outputs include:

  • A report that outlines ideal locations and effective techniques for biochar application
  • Recommendations on tools and processes for ongoing verification of soil carbon and overall soil health, preferably as citizen science
  • Guidelines that community members can use when doing sustainable landscape management in Park City’s defensible spaces

The geographic scale for this biochar project will be restricted to a couple of acres. Biochar will be reapplied to the location from which it was removed and to other open spaces. Park City’s NLC grant covers the production of the biochar.

About the Community

Darcy Glenn is an Environmental Analyst for Park City and will serve as the main point of contact for the project. She will be supported by Luke Cartin, Environmental Sustainability Manager, and Celia Peterson, Sustainability Project Manager.

As the community leads, Darcy, Luke and Celia commit to serving as the liaisons between the scientist(s) and collection sites. They will help facilitate access to data collection and assist in overcoming local/political/logistical hurdles as they arise.

Scientist Wanted

The Sustainability team at Park City seeks a scientific partner to evaluate the carbon sequestration potential of biochar, and most effective application methods to increase Park City’s carbon sink. The scientist(s) will conduct field verifications and identify suitable locations for the application of the biochar. The scientific partner will work with the team for two growing seasons and be willing and able to participate in their next biochar demonstration event in October 2019. This will include periodic retesting where necessary, preparing maps and reports.

Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact that they can contribute to as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.

Timeline and Outcome

Development of methodology will begin as soon as possible (June 2019). Sampling and testing will take place throughout two growing seasons (June/July 2019 through September/October 2020).

June/July 2019- Identification of test plots, soil integration methodologies and amounts of biochar to be applied. Baseline measurement of soil carbon content, productivity and water retention. Application of biochar to test plots.

October 2019- Measurement of carbon content of soil after one application. Creation of and second application of biochar.

June 2020- Measurement of soil carbon, productivity and water retention. Possible biochar creation and application event.

October 2020- Final measurement of soil carbon, productivity and water retention. Delivery of guidelines for tools and methods for soil sampling. Delivery of final report on findings of effectiveness of soil incorporation methods and potential for ongoing carbon sequestration.

Desired Skills and Expertise

  • Background in organic chemistry, environmental engineering, soil science, and/or forestry
  • Experience with scientific sampling and study design strongly preferred
  • Ability to translate difficult science terminology for a lay audience
  • Outdoor enthusiast preferred but not required
  • Adept problem-solver and able to effectively convey results in written form
  • Willingness to connect science to local concerns
  • Relaxed, easy going personality with a good sense of humor
  • Strong listening and communication skills
  • Competent and open to new ideas
  • The scientist should be able to visit the community in-person


Collaborating Organization(s)