In the News: Tropical forests have flipped from sponges to sources of carbon dioxide

I think as a global community when we see nature at its finest we are in awe of how grand things are how beautiful the wildlife is, how exotic the flowers are and how giant trees can grow to be after hundreds of years. One of the major culprits in CO2 release is the deforestation of major tropical forests around the world.

“The world’s tropical forests are exhaling” meaning that instead of breathing in the carbon dioxide that humans breathe out to sustain the leaves and stems on their branches and roots they are emitting more CO2. A new study from the satellite imagery from Asia, Africa and the Americas contribute more CO2 than they remove. There are not enough trees to sustain the amount of CO2 emissions and this is where deforestation comes into play. A lot of forests are being overturned to more urban spaces like farms and roads. The real problem is less visible to the satellites.

Forests can be degraded by more than jus forestation like selective logging, environmental change and wildfires. The reason satellites do not pick up on these forms of degradation is because the forest still looks like a forest it is just less dense, containing less biomass. Carbon density is weight and no satellite in space is able to measure weight.

Those leading the study, including a forest ecologist by the name of Alessandro Baccini, came up with a way to “calibrate satellite images of the tropics using field observations and NASA Light Detection and Ranging Data, or lidar.” They created an algorithm that inspect 500 meter-square area and compare it every year from 2003 to 2014 to calculate carbon density gains and losses.

From this the researchers found that tropical forests emit 862 teregrams of carbon annually which is comparable to all of the cars in 2015. Not only do they emit so much, but the trees only absorb 436 teregrams. This is a wake-up call, the forest which are supposed to be absorbing our emissions and creating oxygen for humans are degrading our environment even more. Another author of the study says, “Forests are low-hanging fruit. Maintaining forests intact, and attempting to restore forests where they might have been lost, is relatively straightforward and inexpensive.”

This may all be true but a terrestrial ecosystem scientist, Joshua Fisher states that forest biomass study does not abide by the atmospheric observations of carbon emissions from the forests, which shows they are still taking in more CO2 than emitting. It’s possible because the study focuses on above the ground and does not include the absorption in the soil. He adds that is is a good step in showing what forest degradation does to climate change and is necessary for future analyses.


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