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Rain forests do not soak up carbon

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Irish Weather Online has bad news for those who believe that the earth heals itself in simple ways:

Human activities have led to increases in carbon dioxide levels but it was thought that trees would respond to this by increasing their growth and taking up larger amounts of carbon. However, enhanced tree growth leads to more dead plant matter, especially leaf litter, returning to the forest floor and it is unclear what effect this has on the carbon cycle.

The researchers used results from a six-year experiment in a rainforest at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Central America, to study how increases in litterfall – dead plant material such as leaves, bark and twigs which fall to the ground – might affect carbon storage in the soil. Their results show that extra litterfall triggers an effect called ‘priming’ where fresh carbon from plant litter provides much-needed energy to micro-organisms, which then stimulates the decomposition of carbon stored in the soil.

The study concludes that a large proportion of the carbon sequestered by greater tree growth in tropical forests could be lost from the soil. The researchers estimate that a 30% increase in litterfall could release about 0.6 tonnes of carbon per hectare from lowland tropical forest soils each year. This amount of carbon is greater than estimates of the climate-induced increase in forest biomass carbon in Amazonia over recent decades.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

August 16, 2011 at 4:45 am

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