Are tropical forests resilient to global warming?

Mar 10, 2013

Tropical forests are less likely to lose biomass – plants and plant material - in response to greenhouse gas emissions over the twenty-first century than may previously have been thought, suggests a study published online this week in Nature Geoscience.

In the most comprehensive assessment yet of the risk of tropical forest dieback due to climate change, the results have important implications for the future evolution of including the role they play in the and .

To remain effective, programmes such as the United Nation's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation+ scheme require rainforest stability, in effect locking carbon within the trees.

The research team comprised and tropical ecologists from the UK, USA, Australia and Brazil and was led by Dr Chris Huntingford from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in the UK.

Dr Huntingford and colleagues used computer simulations with 22 climate models to explore the response of in the Americas, Africa and Asia to greenhouse-gas-induced climate change. They found loss of forest cover in only one model, and only in the Americas. The researchers found that the largest source of uncertainty in the projections to be differences in how plant physiological processes are represented, ahead of the choice of emission scenario and differences between various climate projections.

Although this work suggests that the risk of climate-induced damage to tropical forests will be relatively small, the paper does list where the considerable uncertainties remain in defining how ecosystems respond to global warming.

Lead author Dr Chris Huntingford, from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in the UK, said, "The big surprise in our analysis is that uncertainties in ecological models of the rainforest are significantly larger than uncertainties from differences in climate projections. Despite this we conclude that based on current knowledge of expected climate change and ecological response, there is evidence of forest resilience for the Americas (Amazonia and Central America), Africa and Asia."

Co-author Dr David Galbraith from the University of Leeds said, "This study highlights why we must improve our understanding of how tropical forests respond to increasing temperature and drought. Different vegetation models currently simulate remarkable variability in forest sensitivity to . And while these new results suggest that tropical forests may be quite resilient to warming, it is important also to remember that other factors not included in this study, such as fire and deforestation, will also affect the carbon stored in tropical forests. Their impacts are also difficult to simulate. It is therefore critical that modelling studies are accompanied by further comprehensive forest observations."

Co-author Dr Lina Mercado from the University of Exeter and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said, "Building on this study, one of the big challenges that remains is to include, in Earth system models, a full representation of thermal acclimation and adaptation of the rainforest to warming."

Explore further: Climate change poses growing health threat, UN reports

More information: Chris Huntingford, Przemyslaw Zelazowski, David Galbraith, Lina M. Mercado, Stephen Sitch, Rosie Fisher, Mark Lomas, Anthony P.Walker, Chris D. Jones, Ben B. B. Booth, Yadvinder Malhi, Debbie Hemming, Gillian Kay, Peter Good, Simon L. Lewis, Oliver L. Phillips, Owen K. Atkin, Jon Lloyd, Emanuel Gloor, Joana Zaragoza-Castells, Patrick Meir, Richard Betts, Phil P. Harris, Carlos Nobre, Jose Marengo and Peter M. Cox 'Simulated resilience of tropical rainforests to CO2-induced climate change' will be published in Nature Geoscience on 10 March 2013. DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1741

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verkle
2.1 / 5 (11) Mar 10, 2013
Tropical forests are less likely to lose....than may previously have been thought.

I never knew that "scientists" expected tropical forests to lose a lot of their biomass.

But I know some of them have been screaming wolf, though their predictions are lacking on many details, especially those based on solid scientific reasoning using proven models.

arq
5 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2013
Tropical forests have always been facing the threat of deforestation more than increased co2 levels in the atmosphere. In countries like brazil the amazon rain forest has lost a lot of its cover in the last few decades. Same situation in other countries like indonesia's and india's rain forests.
alfie_null
3 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2013
Aside from the temperature focus, what environmental attributes have to change to induce desertification? Wind patterns? Ocean currents?
triplehelix
1 / 5 (3) Mar 11, 2013
Plants won't die when more CO2 is made. This might be because plants respire via CO2....

This article might as well say "well fed children don't lose biomass".

Yeah, no shit sherlock.