Erica Smithwick, associate professor of geography, received a Fulbright award to research carbon storage in trees and teach a course in South Africa.
Penn State

Professor awarded Fulbright to study tree carbon storage, teach in South Africa

In January 2016, Penn State associate professor of geography Erica Smithwick will have the opportunity to greatly expand the scope of the ecological research portfolio she has been building for several years in South Africa. The recipient of a prestigious Core Fulbright U.S. Scholarship, Smithwick will spend six months investigating how much carbon is stored in trees in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, and how that could impact global warming. She will also teach a course on sustainability at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

“As trees grow, they accumulate carbon naturally through photosynthesis, and it becomes a structural component of the tree. That carbon can be released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, through deforestation, tree respiration or decomposition,” said Smithwick, who is also a research associate with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.

Carbon accounts for approximately half of a tree’s weight, but the specific amount varies with species and size of the tree. To calculate a tree’s weight without cutting it down, ecologists use equations that use include information such as the tree’s girth and height.

“Right now, most countries in Africa don’t know how much carbon is being stored in trees, and there hasn’t been much empirical research into the coastal forest reserves in Eastern Cape Province that I’ll be studying,” said Smithwick.

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