A STRATEGY FOR MAPPING AND MODELING THE ECOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF US
C. Milesia,e, C. D. Elvidgeb, J. B. Dietzc, B. T. Tuttled, R. R. Nemania and S. W. Runninge
aNASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA 94035, USA, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
bNOAA/National Geophysical Data Center, 325 Broadway, Boulder, CO 80303, USA - email@example.com
cCooperative Institute for Research on the Atmosphere, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80309, USA -
dUniversity of Colorado, Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences, 216 UCB, Boulder, CO,
80309, USA - firstname.lastname@example.org
eNumerical Terradynamic Simulation Group, College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana Missoula,
MT 59812, USA – email@example.com
KEY WORDS: turf grasses, residential lawns, BIOME-BGC, impervious surface area, carbon sequestration potential, water use
Lawns are ubiquitous in the American urban landscapes. However, little is known about their impact on the carbon and water
cycles at the national level. The limited information on the total extent and spatial distribution of these ecosystems and the
variability in management practices are the major factors complicating this assessment. In this study, relating turf grass area to
fractional impervious surface area, it was estimated that potentially 163,812 km2 (± 35,850 km2) of land are cultivated with some
form of lawn in the continental United States, an area three times larger than that of any irrigated crop. Using the Biome-BGC
ecosystem process model, the growth of turf grasses was modelled for 865 sites across the 48 conterminous states under different
management scenarios, including either removal or recycling of the grass clippings, different nitrogen fertilization rates and two
alternative water irrigation practices. The results indicate that well watered and fertilized turf grasses act as a carbon sink, even
assuming removal and bagging of the grass clippings after mowing. The potential soil carbon accumulation that could derive from
the total surface under turf (up to 25.7 Tg of C/yr with the simulated scenarios) would require up to 695 to 900 liters of water per
person per day, depending on the modeled water irrigation practices, and a cost in carbon emissions due to fertilization and
operation of mowing equipment ranging from 15 to 35% of the sequestration.
Lawns are ubiquitous in the American urban landscapes, as
they can be found on most residential lots, parks, institutional
and commercial landscapes, and golf courses, often as
monocultures of turf grasses, independently of the local climate
(Jenkins 1994). Existing estimates indicate that in the early
1990’s the surface cultivated with turf was up to three times
larger than that of irrigated corn, the largest irrigated crop in
the U.S. (DPRA, Incorporated 1992).
Turf grasses contribute to soil carbon (C) sequestration
(Bandaranayake et al., 2003; Qian and Follett, 2002; Van
Dersal, 1936) and, as a component of urban vegetation, to the
mitigation of the urban heat island effect (Spronken-Smith et
al., 2000) and to enhanced water infiltration compared to bare
soil or impervious surfaces. However, turf has also been linked
with a number of negative environmental impacts. Turf grasses
often pose a neglected environmental hazard through the use of
lawn chemicals and over-fertilization (Robbins and Sharp,
2003; Robbins et al., 2001), and, where used, irrigation of turf
grasses sharply increases the summer water consumption for
residential and commercial use, especially if grown in arid and
semiarid regions, where it can account for 75% of the total
household water consumption (Mayer et al., 1999).
In spite of the pervading presence of turf grass systems in the
urban and suburban landscape and their considerable use of
water resources, there continues to be little knowledge about
the ecological functioning of these systems at the national
level. If turf grasses are to be considered carbon sequestering
components of the urban ecosystems, what is their contribution
to the national carbon sequestration potential? And what is the
estimated water use to sustain this sequestration potential? The
fragmented distribution of residential and commercial lawns
and the large variability in management practices adopted to
grow the different types of turf surfaces certainly challenges
the task of answering these questions.
In this study we present an estimate of the carbon sequestration
potential of U.S. lawns and the implied water use by producing
a spatially explicit estimate of their distribution within the
contiguous 48 states and simulating their growth with an
ecosystem process model.
2.1 Estimation of U.S. turf surface
Due to its high level of fragmentation, direct mapping of the
total surface under turf in the U.S. is impractical. Past efforts
to estimate the continental surface of turf grasses used indirect
approaches that provided measures of the total surface under
lawn on a state-by-state basis, therefore lacking the spatial
detail required to calculate spatially-dependent biogeochemical
cycles. Vinlove and Torla (1995), for example, estimated the
national total home lawn area using methods based on adjusted
Federal Housing Authority (FHA) average and median lot sizes
by state, without accounting for the turf surfaces found in golf
courses, parks, schools, road sides, etc. DPRA, Incorporated
(1992), estimated the total area under turf on the basis of direct
surveys in 12 states, which were extrapolated to the remaining
states in proportion to their population.
In our study we assumed the surface of turf grasses to be
inversely related to the amount of impervious surface
associated with urban development (roads, roofs, parking lots,
sidewalks, etc.). We used the 1-km gridded fractional cover of
Impervious Surface Area (ISA) for the continental U.S. derived
by Elvidge et al. (2004). Ground calibration for the creation of
this dataset was provided by direct measurements of the
proportion of constructed surface (roads, parking lots,
buildings) versus the proportion of vegetated (turf grasses
and/or trees) or other (undeveloped) surface from 80 high-
resolution aerial photographs collected along development
transect distributed across thirteen major urban centres
distributed across the U.S.
The proportions of impervious versus vegetated surfaces
derived from the high-resolution aerial photography tiles were
used to develop a predictive relationship between the fractional
ISA and the combined fraction of turf and tree surface, given
that turf was present under the trees observed in the samples.
For this model, only samples over areas with more than 10%
fractional ISA were used, leaving out the sparsely developed
urban fringes, where the occurrence of very low development
density is often associated with forested and other non-turf
vegetated surfaces. The predictive model showed a moderately
strong (R-square=0.69), highly significant (p-value < .0001,
RMSE = 11.2) relationship between fractional ISA and
fractional turf grass area and was subsequently applied to the
conterminous U.S. to produce a 1-km grid of fractional turf
area (Figure 1). For full details on the estimation of the
continental area under turf refer to Milesi et al. (2005).
2.2 Modelling of turf grasses growth
Management of turf grasses is highly variable, and can range
from high maintenance golf courses and athletic fields, which
require high doses of fertilizer, to some residential lawns that
are not adequately watered and fertilized, spending part of the
growing season in a dormant stage. Many residential lawns, on
the other hand, are managed by homeowners who pay little
attention to the amount of resources invested for lawn
maintenance and often receive excess water and fertilizer.
Variability exists also in the fate of the clippings, which are
either mulched and left decompose on the grass (recycling part
of the nitrogen fertilizer) or removed, and composted or bagged
and sent to the landfill. In this study the simulation of the
impact of different turf grass management practices on the
continental C sequestration potential and water budget was
based on the simplifying assumption that, under a given
scenario, the entire turf surface is managed homogeneously,
such as irrigated with the same criteria, fertilized with the
same amount of N and mowed at the same height, whether it
would be part of a residential lawn or a golf course.
We adapted the Biome-BGC ecosystems process model
(Thornton et al., 2002; White et al., 2000) to predict C and
water fluxes of cool season (C3) and warm season (C4) grasses
turf ecosystems at 865 sites distributed across the U.S.
Mowing activities were simulated as mortality processes that
would remove 20% of the leaf area index (LAI) and of the fine
roots every time the LAI reached a critical value of 1.5.
Removal of the clippings was simulated by removing the
portion of C and N associated with the cut leaves from the
ecosystem process. In the cycling scenario, the C and N
associated with the cut leaves were left on the site to
decompose as litter. To evaluate the effect of clipping cycling
on grasses N availability, N was applied at two different rates
in contrasting simulation runs. Clippings were either removed
or cycled in scenarios simulating an application of 146 kg
N/ha/yr and cycled in scenarios with an application of 73 kg
Irrigation during the growing season was simulated by adding
water to the precipitation field in the 18-year 1-km gridded
climate data obtained from the Daymet dataset (Thornton et
al., 1997). We assumed that the sprinkling season of a certain
location would start when the minimum temperatures remained
above 5 °C for seven consecutive days in the spring, and end
when minimum temperatures decreased below 5 °C for seven
consecutive days in the fall, as plants growth requires
temperatures above freezing to take place. Two watering
management scenarios were simulated. In one type of watering
management we followed the common recommendation that
during the growing season turf grasses require about 2.54 cm
(1 inch) of water per week (Schultz, 1999). In the simulations,
in the case of rainfall, rain made up for part of this amount.
The alternative watering management scenario, rather than
providing a fixed weekly amount of water, modulated the
irrigation based on the potential evapotranspiration (PET) and
precipitation, in this case calculated according to Priestly and
Taylor (1972). In this case, irrigation was simulated to be
triggered when the PET minus precipitation, accumulated since
the last watering event, exceeded 60% of the added water.
Irrigation then replaced 20% of the PET, bringing the water
availability to nearly 80% of PET. The effect of the two
different water management practices on the C and water
balance was evaluated comparing scenarios in which N added
through fertilization was constant and irrigation was either
fixed at 2.54 cm of water/week or modulated according to PET.
The simulation sites were assumed to grow either C3 (cool
season) or C4 (warm season) turf grasses, or an equal mix of
the two in the transitional region, based on adaptation zones
The growth of turf grasses at the 865 sites was simulated for
the following five different scenarios:
Control: turf grasses growth was simulated with no
management (no irrigation and no N fertilization) except for
cycling of the clippings;
Removed-146N: the grass was irrigated during the growing
season so that a total of 2.54 cm of water per week was
provided, fertilized with 146 kg N/ha/yr, and the clippings
were removed from the system after each mowing event;
Cycled-146N: same as Removed-146N, except for the
clippings, which were left on the site after each mowing event;
Cycled-73N: same as Cycled-146N, except for the amount of
fertilizer, which was halved to 73 kg N/ha/yr;
Cycled-73N-PET: same as Cycled-73N, except for the
irrigation management, which was calculated based on
More details on the simulation methods can be found in Milesi
et al. (2005).
The simulation results were extrapolated to the continental
surface assuming that turf areas in the vicinity of a simulation
site displayed similar C and water fluxes. The continental U.S.
was divided into Thiessen polygons centered on the simulation
sites and the output results at each simulation site were then
multiplied by the total turf area estimated within the respective
3. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
3.1 Estimation of turf grass area
The total turf grass area estimated in this analysis summed up
to 163,812 km2 (± 35,850 km2 for the upper and lower 95%
confidence interval bounds). This estimate, intended to include
all residential, commercial, and institutional lawns, parks, golf
courses and athletic fields, accounts for approximately 1.9% of
the total continental U.S. area, which compares with 3.5-4.9%
of the total surface estimated to be devoted to urban
development (Nowak et al., 2001; National Association of
Realtors, 2001). Our estimate is compatible with the results
from other studies, in particular when considering the recent
growth in population and urban areas in the U.S. (Fulton et al.,
2001). DPRA, Incorporated (1992), assuming turf surface to be
directly related to the population, estimated a total surface of
188,180 km2, among which 94,090 km2 of home lawns
(Grounds Maintenance, 1996). A 1987 study by Roberts and
Roberts (1987), estimated a total surface of 100,000-120,000
km2. Another study, focusing only on residential lawns,
analyzing state-based average lot sizes of single family homes,
estimated a total home lawn area ranging between 58,000 km2
and 71,680 km2, considerably downsizing DPRA’s estimate of
home lawns (Vinlove and Torla, 1995). One of the earliest
estimates of total turf surface dates back to the late 1960’s,
when it was reported that 67,000 km2 of lawn existed
nationally (Falk, 1976).
Even when the estimate of total surface is considered to be
closer to the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval
(127,962 km2), it appears that turf grasses would represent the
single largest irrigated “crop” in the U.S., occupying a total
area three times larger than the surface of irrigated corn
(43,000 km2 according to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, out
of 202,000 km2 of total irrigated cropland area).
Figure 1. Distribution of the fractional turf grass area (%) in
the conterminous U.S.
3.2 Water budget
The two alternate irrigation methods produced watering
requirements that varied widely across the climatic regions of
the 48 states. In general, a fixed irrigation management based
on turf requirements of 2.54 cm of water per week, including
rainfall, resulted in a minimum of no irrigation in Lincoln
Park, Michigan (meaning that here rainfall alone is able to
satisfy the watering requirements of the turf throughout the
growing season) to a maximum of 125 cm of water per year to
be added through irrigation in Yuma, Arizona. In contrast, the
irrigation management based on PET tended to decrease the
amount of water supplied through irrigation in wet regions and
increase it in arid and semiarid regions of the U.S., where it
was by far larger than 2.54 cm/week. Modulating irrigation
according to PET required a minimum of 17 cm/yr of water to
be added through irrigation in Pensacola, Florida, to a
maximum of 197 cm/yr in Yuma, Arizona. A Mann-Whitney
U-test for differences indicated that the two irrigation methods
would provide significantly different annual amounts of water
at 77% of the 865 sites, with a larger amount of water
sprinkled in the West and less water in the humid southeastern
Extrapolating the water use for irrigation with the two methods
at each of the 865 sites to the surface of turf grasses contained
in the respective Thiessen polygons yields an average total of
73,560 Mm3 (Mega cubic meters) of water with the constant
2.54 cm/week method and 95,100 Mm3 of water with the PET
method, while rain contribution during the sprinkling season to
the watering of the total estimated turf grass area would
amount to 99,130 Mm3 (Figure 2).
These estimates indicate that, in the scenario that the entire
turf surface in the U.S. was to be irrigated to satisfy the 2.54
cm/week water supply or at 80% of PET, domestic and
commercial consumptive water use would be, respectively, 695
to 900 liters of water per person per day. Noteworthy is that in
spite of the elevated irrigation requirements, there appears to
be a considerable amount of water leaving the soil layer as
outflow (water in excess of field capacity) rather than
evapotranspiration (56,620 to 57,670 Mm3 of water, depending
on the irrigation management scenarios). 90% of the estimated
outflow takes place in the eastern and southern U.S., where it
is related to rainfall rather than sprinkling events. In occasion
of abundant rainfall, precipitation is larger than the soil water
holding capacity and leaves the soil before the grass can use it
for evapotranspiration. In spite of a surplus of available water
during the rainy periods, sprinkling is still required during the
If irrigation could just replace actual evapotranspirational
losses, the water to be added through sprinkling would amount
to 11,070 Mm3 in the case of the 2.54 cm/week method and
33,300 Mm3 with the PET-based method. The increase in the
water requirements with the PET-based method has to be
attributed to the arid western U.S., where grasses can
evaporate much more than 2.54 cm of water per week if more
irrigation is supplied. Still, part of the water reaching the
surface during the growing season, either from precipitation
when abundant rainfall occurs, or from the sprinkler, due to
Priestly-Taylor PET overestimating actual evapotranspiration,
would not be used by the grass and leave the soil layer as
Figure 2. Water budgets of the total U.S. surface for the forus
management scenarios. Error bars indicate budget
values calculated for 95% confidence interval lower
and upper buond estimate of total turf surface.
3.3 Soil carbon sequestration potential
The model simulation results referring to the C accumulating
in soils in the five different management scenarios are reported
in Table 1. The values represent the range in simulated soil C
accumulation over the 18-year period of climate data for the
A comparison of the results under the 5 management scenarios
reflects the notion that N fertilization increases the
accumulation of carbon in the soil. For a certain amount of N
input through fertilization, the C accumulations were larger
when cycling of the grass clippings was simulated, since the
onsite decomposition of the mowed grass clippings returned a
consistent amount of N to the soil. For each scenario,
differences in the maximum–minimum range were related
mainly to the growing season length.
The control scenario produced the lowest carbon accumulation
(an average of 88 g C/m2 over 18 years). The low number of
mowing counts produced by the model in this scenario suggests
that in most locations (most of the simulation sites except a
few in the northeastern US) it would be impossible to grow a
lawn as a monoculture of turf grasses with no irrigation and
fertilization. If turf grasses reach an LAI of 1.5 only 6-7 times
in areas where the growing season is as long as 300-360 days,
then it is probable that between subsequent cuts there would
be several opportunities for non-turf species to invade the
surface and prosper over time.
The largest C accumulation was simulated for scenario Cycled-
146N. Abundant fertilization (146 kg N/ha/yr) and the
recycling of the N contained in the clippings left to decompose
on the site produced an average C accumulation potential of
1978 g C/m2 over 18 years.
The second largest soil C accumulations were simulated for
scenarios Cycled-73N and Cycled-73N-PET, with an average
reduction of 43% in C accumulation when compared with that
simulated for Cycled-146N but with 50% less fertilizer. For
Cycled-73N and Cycled-73N-PET the different water
management had no significant effect on the carbon cycle.
In scenario Removed-146N, where the clippings are removed,
the soil C accumulation was 60% less than in scenario Cycled-
146N, although the same amount of external N was applied but
no internal N recycling was allowed to take place because of
the removal of the clippings.
(g C m-2 yr-1)
-8 – 7
27 – 60
64 – 149
37 – 67
37 – 67
(g C m2 18-yr-) 88 783 1978 1122 1119
counts 0 – 7
16 – 52
22 – 98
14 – 55
16 – 56
Table 1. Minimum and maximum values of the modelled
annual gross soil C accumulation, 18-year
increment in soil C, and mowing counts.
In the managed scenarios turf grasses present average annual
increments in soil carbon comparable to the rates observed for
crops cultivated with no-till practices (Ismail et al., 1994).
Large differences in total C sequestration can be realized under
the same irrigation management of 2.54 cm of water per week,
all resulting in very large losses of water through outflow
(Figure 2). This result is most probably explained by the fact
that in all the simulated management scenarios water is not
limiting growth, which responds rather to increases in N
availability. The large increase in water application observed
when modulating irrigation according to PET, on the other
hand, results in an insignificant change in C fluxes, indicating
that the water is lost in luxury evapotranspiration.
Extrapolating the simulation results from the 865 sites to the
total surface potentially under turf continental U.S., the total
gross soil carbon sequestration ranged from 10.4 Tg C/yr in the
Removed-146N scenario to 25.7 Tg C/yr in the Cycled-146N
scenario (Figure 3). A modest 1.2 Tg C/yr was obtained from
the unmanaged control scenario, since in most of the country
turf grasses would not be able to survive without irrigation and
fertilization. While the highest availability of N in the Cycled-
146N scenario also produces the highest gross C sequestration
potential, halving the input of external fertilizer to 73 kg
N/ha/yr and recycling the clippings appears to be a more
efficient approach to soil C accumulation than fertilizing with
146 kg N/ha/yr and removing the clippings.
Figure 3. Annual gross soil carbon sequestration and C costs
due to N fertilizer and lawn mower operation
From the perspective of evaluating the ecological effects of
lawns in the U.S., the gross soil C sequestration potential
values estimated from the model runs have to be discounted by
the C emissions involved. At least two sources of emissions
implied in the assumptions of this analysis can be quantified
here. For example, there are emissions associated with N
fertilization. While the input of N increases the soil C
accumulation potential, there is a linear increase in C
emissions attributable to the synthesis, transport and
commercialisation of the fertilizer, which is estimated around
1.4 moles of C per mole of N (Schlesinger, 2000). In scenarios
Removed-146N and Cycled-146N, where 2.4 Tg N/yr would be
distributed over the entire area potentially under turf,
fertilization would contribute to 2.9 Tg C/yr, or 28% to 11% of
the soil C sequestration respectively (Figure 3). In scenarios
Cycled-73N and Cycled-73N-PET, the N fertilizer C “cost”
would amount to 10% of the soil C sequestration potential.
A conservative estimate of the C emissions deriving from the
operation of lawn mowers can be attempted using data from
Christensen at al. (2001), reporting the emissions from a small
engine 4-stroke lawn mower. Considering an emission rate of
250 g C/h and assuming an average mowing speed of 2000
m2/hr, lawn mower emissions for the entire surface potentially
under turf would range from 0.7 to 1.1 Tg C/yr depending on
the management scenario, and only 0.1g TgC/yr in the control
scenario (Figure 3). Adding the lawn mower C emissions to the
N fertilizer related emissions would reduce the total gross C
sequestration potential of lawns by 35% in the Removed-146N
scenario and by about 15% in the other management scenarios.
Further reductions in the C sequestration potential that cannot
be accounted for with the available data are possibly connected
with irrigation practices, especially were pumping is involved,
and with the disposal of lawn clippings in landfills.
In this study we mapped the total surface of turf grasses in the
continental U.S. and simulated its water use and C
sequestration potential under different management practices
for irrigation, fertilization and fate of the clippings. Rather
than trying to accurately quantify the existing fluxes, we
simulated scenarios in which the entire surface was to be
managed like a well-maintained lawn, a thick green carpet of
turf grasses, watered, fertilized and kept regularly mown. The
accuracy of the results is therefore limited by both the
uncertainty in the mapping of the total lawn area and by the
simplifying assumptions made while modeling turf grasses
The analysis indicates that turf grasses, occupying about 2% of
the surface of the continental U.S., would be the single largest
irrigated crop in the country. The scenarios described in this
study also indicate that a well-maintained lawn is a C
sequestering system, although the positive C balance
discounted for the hidden costs associated with N-fertilizer and
the operation of lawn mowers comes at the expense of a very
large use of water, N, and, not quantified in this study,
pesticides. The model simulations have assumed a
conservative amount of fertilization (a maximum of 146 kg
N/ha/yr). In general the rates of N applications are similar to
those used for row crops, and the current high-input choices
made by consumers and professional turf managers for
maintaining monocultures of turf grasses typical of many lawns
and play fields comes at the risk, not analyzed here, of
watershed pollution due to improper fertilization and use of
If the entire turf surface was well watered following commonly
recommended schedules there would also be an enormous
pressure on the U.S. water resources, especially when
considering that drinking water is usually sprinkled. At the
time of this writing, in most regions outdoor water use already
reaches 50-75% of the total residential use. Because of
demographic growth and because more and more people are
moving towards the warmer regions of the country the potential
exists for the amount of water used for turf grasses to increase.
Beneficial effects of turf grasses, such as a carbon
sequestration but also recreation, storm runoff reduction due to
increased soil infiltration in occasion of intense rainfall, and
removal of impurities and chemicals during percolation of the
water through the root zone, could be sought by minimizing the
application of fertilizers and pesticides, introduction of lower
input species mixes such as clover and other so-called weeds
(Bormann, 1993), on site decomposition of the grass clippings
and extending the practice of irrigating with waste water rather
than with drinking water.
This study was supported by the NASA Earth System Science
Fellowship program to the first author and by the NASA Land
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