The Earth’s large forests take up substantially more atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis than they release back to the atmosphere through respiration. Thus acting as a carbon ‘sink’, they (and the oceans) are our closest natural allies in the fight against climate change.
But many forests are at threat – not only from logging and clearing, but from climate change itself.
Take drought. How will mature tropical rain forests respond to dryer conditions, which some climate models suggest might be ahead in the not-so-distant future?
The 2005 drought in the Amazon basin gave scientists an opportunity to find out. What they saw is not particularly heartening: Prolonged dryness has apparently turned some affected areas of the Amazon from a carbon sink to a carbon source, a team led by Oliver Phillips of Leeds University in Britain reports in Science today (Abstract here).
Patches subjected to a 100-milimetre decrease in rainfall released on average 5.3 tonnes of carbon per hectare – around 9 times the amount undisturbed tropical forests take up, on average, per year. Basin-wide, between 1.2-1.6 billion tonnes of carbon were released during the 2005 drought, the team estimates.
Over at Nature News, I’ve put together a little briefing on what we know and what we don’t know about the tropical carbon sink.