If a Tree Falls in the Forest, and No One Is Around to Hear It, Does Climate Change?

Jun 12, 2008
If a Tree Falls in the Forest, and No One Is Around to Hear It, Does Climate Change?
Earth hosts roughly 42,000,000 square kilometers of forest, about one third of the land area.

There are roughly 42 million square kilometers of forest on Earth, a swath that covers almost a third of the land surface, and those wooded environments play a key role in both mitigating and enhancing global warming.

In a review paper appearing in this week's Forest Ecology special issue of Science, atmospheric scientist Gordon Bonan of the Natinoal Science Foundation's National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., presents the current state of understanding for how forests impact global climate.

"As politicians and the general public become more aware of climate change, there will be greater interest in legislative policies to mitigate global warming," said Bonan. "Forests have been proposed as a possible solution, so it is imperative that we understand fully how forests influence climate."

The teeming life of forests, and the physical structures containing them, are in continuous flux with incoming solar energy, the atmosphere, the water cycle and the carbon cycle--in addition to the influences of human activities. The complex relationships both add and subtract from the equations that dictate the warming of the planet.

"In the Amazon, tropical rainforests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," said Bonan. "This helps mitigate global warming by lowering greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. These forests also pump moisture into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. This cools climate and also helps to mitigate global warming."

While even the earliest European settlers in North America recognized that the downing of forests affected local climates, the global impact of such activities has been uncovered over more recent decades as new methods, analytical tools, satellites and computer models have revealed the global harm that forest devastation can cause.

As studies have explored the mechanisms behind these effects, and the effects themselves, researchers have come to recognize that calculating the specific harm from a specific local impact is a highly complicated problem.

"We need better understanding of the many influences of forests on climate, both positive and negative feedbacks, and how these will change as climate changes," said Bonan. "Then we can begin to identify and understand the potential of forests to mitigate global warming."

Bonan's review paper, an additional video interview and other supporting materials for the June 13, 2008, forest ecology issue of Science are available through their website: www.sciencemag.org/forests/ .

Source: NSF

Explore further: NASA sees intensifying typhoon Phanfone heading toward Japan

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Sculpting tropical peaks

10 hours ago

Tropical mountain ranges erode quickly, as heavy year-round rains feed raging rivers and trigger huge, fast-moving landslides. Rapid erosion produces rugged terrain, with steep rivers running through deep ...

Volcano expert comments on Japan eruption

11 hours ago

Loÿc Vanderkluysen, PhD, who recently joined Drexel as an assistant professor in Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, returned Friday from fieldwork ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

maxberan
1.3 / 5 (4) Jun 12, 2008
How is it possible that they remove CO2 from the atmosphere? Gross primary productivity to build biomass balances heterotrophic respiration, death and decomposition over various timescales. Any locally positive net ecosystem productivity would be zeroed at biome level by fire even in natural forest stands. Soils are not a major component of the carbon balance in tropical rainforest and in any case is carbon in forest soils and captured above ground within the canopy on the increase. It too must ultimately be cancelled by fire. Such field measurements of CO2 balance that have shown seasonal increases are self biassing in that they perforce are located in stands that are growing and alive. Fire is the ultimate balancing mechanism that means that forests don't transform into massive lumps of Carbon - the logical conclusion of the mantra that forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Pogsquog
5 / 5 (4) Jun 13, 2008
Organic matter from forests eventually gets washed into the sea, where it sinks to the bottom of the seabed and locks-up CO2. Clearly, there is also a substantial amount of CO2 stored in forests (several tons per square meter, I expect).
maxberan
not rated yet Jun 16, 2008
You're talking about the amount of carbon stored; the article (and I) is talking about incremental addition of carbon to storage. These are two different quantities and should not be confused.