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Tropical forests can continue to store carbon, even as the planet gets warmer

The view from the canopy at Gunung Mulu's forest, dominated by Shorea albida, in Sarawak, Borneo. Photo by Dr. Lindsay F. Banin
The view from the canopy at Gunung Mulu's forest, dominated by Shorea albida, in Sarawak, Borneo. Photo by Dr. Lindsay F. Banin

May 21 (UPI) -- As long as nations can curb carbon dioxide emissions, tropical forests will continue to store large amounts of carbon, even as the planet continues to warm, according to research published Thursday in the journal Science .

Scientists have previously expressed concerns that climate change and its effects on forest growth could inhibit the ability of tropical forests to store large amounts of carbon.

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To measure the effects of climate change on carbon storage, scientists surveyed half a million trees in 813 forests around the globe. The survey data showed even the hottest tropical forests continue to store large amounts of carbon.

Scientists determined the ability of tropical forests to store carbon begins to decline when average daytime temperatures rise above 32 degrees Celsius, or 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit. However, scientists suggest the resilience of tropical forests is dependent on their protection.

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Forests must remain intact and need time to adapt in order to maintain their carbon storage and sequestration services.

"Our analysis reveals that up to a certain point of heating tropical forests are surprisingly resistant to small temperature differences," Martin Sullivan, research fellow at the University of Leeds, said in a news release.

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"If we limit climate change they can continue to store a large amount of carbon in a warmer world," Sullivan said. "The 32 degree threshold highlights the critical importance of urgently cutting our emissions to avoid pushing too many forests beyond the safety zone."

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If global temperatures are allowed to rise 2 degrees Celsius, some three-quarters of tropical forests will be too hot for optimal carbon storage, according to Sullivan.

Because tropical forests produce biomass and perform photosynthesis at rates greater than rates of tree death and decomposition, they act as carbon sinks -- some of the most efficient and extensive carbon sinks on Earth. Without the carbon storage abilities of tropical forests, global warming would dramatically accelerate.

And while the latest research suggests this ability is surprisingly resilient, the heat tolerance of tropical forests is dependent on enhanced conservation efforts.

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"Our results suggest that intact forests are able to withstand some climate change. Yet these heat-tolerant trees also face immediate threats from fire and fragmentation," said study co-author Beatriz Marimon, professor at the State University of Mato Grosso in Brazil. "Achieving climate adaptation means first of all protecting and connecting the forests that remain."

The survey included more than 2 million tree diameter measurements, and involved more than 10,000 tree species in hundreds of forests across 24 countries, and the research was assisted by more than 225 scientists across the globe.

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Scientists hope the extensive data records collected for the latest study will aid future investigations of the effects of climate change on tropical forest dynamics.

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