Tropical forests are absorbing more carbon than many scientists thought

A new NASA-led study shows that tropical forests may be absorbing far more carbon dioxide than many scientists thought, in response to rising atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas. The study estimates that tropical forests absorb 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of a total global absorption of 2.5 billion — more than is absorbed by forests in Canada, Siberia and other northern regions, called boreal forests.

Forests and other land vegetation currently remove up to 30 percent of human carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. If the rate of absorption were to slow down, the rate of global warming would speed up in return.

 

“Until our analysis, no one had successfully completed a global reconciliation of information about carbon dioxide effects from the atmospheric, forestry and modeling communities,” said co-author Joshua Fisher of JPL. “It is incredible that all these different types of independent data sources start to converge on an answer.”

 

The question of which type of forest is the bigger carbon absorber “is not just an accounting curiosity,” said co-author Britton Stephens of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. “It has big implications for our understanding of whether global terrestrial ecosystems might continue to offset our carbon dioxide emissions or might begin to exacerbate climate change.”

 

As human-caused emissions add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, forests worldwide are using it to grow faster, reducing the amount that stays airborne. This effect is called carbon fertilization. “All else being equal, the effect is stronger at higher temperatures, meaning it will be higher in the tropics than in the boreal forests,” Schimel said, lead autor of the study.

 

But climate change also decreases water availability in some regions and makes Earth warmer, leading to more frequent and larger wildfires. In the tropics, humans compound the problem by burning wood during deforestation. Fires don’t just stop carbon absorption by killing trees, they also spew huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere as the wood burns.

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