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Smithsonian announces Global Forest Carbon Research Initiative

Forests contain nearly 40 percent of the worlds carbonmore than the atmosphere containsbut too little is known about forest carbon dynamics to predict whether anthropogenic global change will increase or decrease forest carbon pools. Helene Muller-Landau, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, announced a major global research effort to quantify forest carbon pools and fluxes. She announced the new effort at the Climate Change in the Americas Symposium, held Feb. 25-29 at the institutes headquarters in Panama.

Researchers from more than 70 institutions working in a network of 25 forest study sites currently monitor more than 3 million trees representing approximately 8,200 species10 percent of the worlds total tree fauna. This Global Forest Observatory, which is coordinated by the Center for Tropical Forest Science at STRI, was originally set up to understand biodiversity but has become an ideal tool for determining the on-the-ground effects of global change.

Working with partners at 12 of the CTFS sites, Muller-Landau will assess carbon storage and movement by quantifying the amount of carbon in trees, soils, lianas and woody debris; determining annual carbon flux at different sites; and seeking explanations for movement of carbon through forest ecosystems. Finally, scientists will scale up the study from individual sites to the larger landscape level by collaborating with regional forest ecologists and remote sensing researchers.

Global warming has been driven by the burning of fossil fuels since the start of the industrial revolution. Current levels of atmospheric carbon have not been reached in the last 400,000 years. While there is evidence from the CTFS forest plots indicating that some forests are currently absorbing some of this excess carbon from the atmosphere, other studies suggest that global temperature increases are actually slowing tree growth and, therefore, carbon absorption. Rainfall patterns and drought frequency are expected to shift as wellalso with unknown impacts on forest carbon budgets.

If forests absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release, this will slow the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide and reduce associated climate change; in contrast, if forest releases exceed absorption, atmospheric and climate change will accelerate.

Initial work from the CTFS plots has already shown significant variation in the carbon stored in trees at sites across the network, as well as significant changes in carbon fluxes through time.

Funding from the HSBC Climate Partnershipin addition to supporting the carbon initiative will support the first-ever landscape-level study in the tropics to understand the role of forests in biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services, as well as carbon storage.


Contact: Beth King
703-487-3774, ext.8216
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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