Amazon carbon sink threatened by drought

Mar 05, 2009

The Amazon is surprisingly sensitive to drought, according to new research conducted throughout the world's largest tropical forest. The 30-year study, published today in Science, provides the first solid evidence that drought causes massive carbon loss in tropical forests, mainly through killing trees.

"For years the Amazon forest has been helping to slow down climate change. But relying on this subsidy from nature is extremely dangerous", said Professor Oliver Phillips, from the University of Leeds and the lead author of the research.

"If the earth's carbon sinks slow or go into reverse, as our results show is possible, carbon dioxide levels will rise even faster. Deeper cuts in emissions will be required to stabilise our climate."

The study, a global collaboration between more than 40 institutions, was based on the unusual 2005 drought in the Amazon. This gave scientists a glimpse into the region's future climate, in which a warming tropical North Atlantic may cause hotter and more intense dry seasons.

The 2005 drought sharply reversed decades of carbon absorption, in which Amazonia helped slow climate change.

In normal years the forest absorbs nearly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. The drought caused a loss of more than 3 billion tonnes. The total impact of the drought - 5 billion extra tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - exceeds the annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined.

"Visually, most of the forest appeared little affected, but our records prove tree death rates accelerated. Because the region is so vast, even small ecological effects can scale-up to a large impact on the planet's carbon cycle," explained Professor Phillips.

Some species, including some important palm trees, were especially vulnerable", said Peruvian botanist and co-author Abel Monteagudo, "showing that drought threatens biodiversity too."

The Amazon accounts for more than half of the world's rainforest, covering an area 25 times as great as the United Kingdom. No other ecosystem on Earth is home to so many species nor exerts such control on the carbon cycle.

The study involved 68 scientists from 13 countries working in RAINFOR, a unique research network dedicated to monitoring the Amazonian forests.

To calculate changes in carbon storage they examined more than 100 forest plots across the Amazon's 600 million hectares, identified and measured over 100,000 trees, and recorded tree deaths as well as new trees. Weather patterns were also carefully measured and mapped.

In the wake of the 2005 drought the RAINFOR team took advantage of this huge natural experiment, and focused their measurements to assess how the drought had affected the forest.

The study found that for at least 25 years the Amazon forest acted as a vast carbon sink. A similar process has also been occurring in Africa.

In fact, over recent decades the tropical forests have absorbed one fifth of global fossil fuel emissions.

But in 2005 this process was reversed. Tree death accelerated most where drought was strongest, and locations subject even to mild drying were affected. Because of the study, we now know the precise sensitivity of the Amazon to warming and drought.

If repeated, Amazon droughts will accelerate climate warming and make future droughts even more damaging.

Source: University of Leeds

Explore further: Researchers develop new instrument to monitor atmospheric mercury

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Forests around the world affected by climate change

Dec 23, 2014

Around the globe, forests are found to be undergoing strong changes due to human influence already today. Degradation of woods due to man-made climate change cannot be ruled out for the future, a special ...

NASA's spaceborne carbon counter maps new details

Dec 19, 2014

The first global maps of atmospheric carbon dioxide from NASA's new Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission demonstrate its performance and promise, showing elevated carbon dioxide concentrations across the ...

Laser scanning accurately 'weighs' trees

Nov 21, 2014

A terrestrial laser scanning technique that allows the structure of vegetation to be 3D-mapped to the millimetre is more accurate in determining the biomass of trees and carbon stocks in forests than current ...

Recommended for you

Arsenic stubbornly taints many US wells, say new reports

10 hours ago

Naturally occurring arsenic in private wells threatens people in many U.S. states and parts of Canada, according to a package of a dozen scientific papers to be published next week. The studies, focused mainly ...

Who's been affected by Australia's extreme heat? Everyone

19 hours ago

Australia has been hit by two years of heat: 2013 was the hottest ever recorded and 2014 wasn't far behind, taking third place. The country has also sweltered through several significant heatwaves, and, though ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

blackle4ps3
not rated yet May 26, 2009
it might help to cap that Darvaz pit 24/7 oxygen burner,burning today and stop lighting up those oil wells and if one wants to cool the planet stop african desert from spreading,dredge in canals and dump that sand in the ocean as islands
blackle4ps3
not rated yet May 27, 2009
if one want to fix ozone layer than stop producing hydrogen gas with unshelded power lines ,simple theory apply voltage to water,hydrogen gas major cause of global warming not pollution

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.