Are The Forests Still Breathing?

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Each year, as a species, humans dump about 8.8 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, 6.5 billion tons from fossil fuels and 1.5 billion from deforestation. But less than half that total, 3.2 billion tons, remains in the atmosphere to warm the planet. So, where is the missing carbon? It's a mystery. Nature is breathing deeply and helping save us from ourselves; forests, grasslands and the waters from the seas and oceans must be acting as carbon sinks. They steal back roughly half of the carbon dioxide we emit, slowing its build-up in the atmosphere and delaying the effects on climate.

However, the problem is that scientists can't be sure that this will last, or whether, as the globe continues to warm, it might even change to where forests and other ecosystems go from carbon sinks to sources, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than they absorb. These doubts have sent researchers into forests, tundra regions and to seas, to track down and understand the missing carbon. If the carbon sinks stop absorbing some of our excess carbon dioxide, we could be facing drastic changes even before 2050.

Some scientists and engineers believe that by understanding natural carbon sinks, we may be able to enhance them or even create our own places to safely stop this threat to global climate, which is why new findings published in Nature Geoscience is newsworthy. Surprisingly, this research contradicts what we have always thought, which is that tropical forests are actually not the carbon sinks that we had thought they were; it instead suggests that rain forests might not help offset the effects of climate change.

This is research from University in the Netherlands, based on in-depth analyses of 1,100 trees from forests in Bolivia, Thailand and Cameroon. Tropical forests contain a quarter of all the carbon found in living things on Earth and we have always regarded them as being major sponges absorbing carbon, removing it from the air, because if left in the atmosphere it would help retain more heat and have an impact on climate change. Over the past 150 years, the concentration of carbon in our atmosphere has increased by 30 to 35 percent. However, the increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not making trees in tropical forests grow faster, say these scientists.

These findings indicate that such forests are not helping mitigate the effects of climate change by removing excess carbon from the atmosphere. So where do the answers lie? There are scientists who are trying to find other solutions, as are researchers at Princeton, who are exploring a technology that would take the carbon out of coal. At the end of the day, we don't have long— the trees are doing their best, but year by year, the flickering redline number for carbon emissions is climbing higher and higher.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia