Forests in the United States and other northern mid- and upper-latitude regions are playing a smaller role in offsetting global warming than previously thought, according to a study appearing in Science this week. The study, which sheds light on the so-called missing carbon sink, concludes that intact tropical forests are removing an unexpectedly high proportion of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, partially offsetting carbon entering the air through industrial emissions and deforestation.
The Science article, "Weak northern and strong tropical land carbon uptake from vertical profiles of atmospheric CO2," was written by an international team of scientists led by Britton Stephens of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
To study the global carbon cycle, Stephens and his colleagues analyzed air samples that had been collected by aircraft across the globe for decades but never before synthesized. The team found that some 40 percent of the carbon dioxide assumed to be absorbed by northern forests is instead taken up in the tropics.
"Our study will provide researchers with a much better understanding of how trees and other plants respond to industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, which is a critical problem in global warming," Stephens says. "This will help us better predict climate change and identify possible strategies for mitigating it."
The missing carbon
For years, one of the biggest mysteries in climate science has been the question of what ultimately happens to the carbon emitted by motor vehicles, factories, deforestation, and other sources. Of the approximately 8 billion tons of carbon emitted each year, about 40 percent accumulates in the atmosphere and about 30 percent is absorbed by the oceans. Scientists believe that terrestrial ecosystems, especially trees, take up the remainder.
To find this terrestrial carbon sink, scientists have turned to computer models that combine w