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Seeing the forest and the trees

With human emissions of carbon dioxide on the rise, there is growing interest in maintaining the Earth's natural mechanisms that absorb and store carbon. A new study released this week in the on-line edition of the journal Science suggests that tree diversity in tropical forests plays a crucial role in determining how much carbon these natural storehouses are able to hold, as well as their ability to provide other crucial ecosystem services such as preventing erosion.

The study was led by Daniel Bunker and Shahid Naeem from the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University and Fabrice DeClerck from the Earth Institute at Columbia University. They simulated variations in forest diversity that resulted from a range of different extinction scenarios: those governed by biological characteristics such as low growth rate or limited growing range, those resulting from human activities such as selective logging, and those arising from environmental changes such as widespread drought. As a result of the simulations, they found that the types of trees remaining after each scenario played out had a large and widely varying effect on the amount of carbon a forest would be able to store.

"Carbon sequestration is just one of the many services that tropical forests provide," said DeClerck. "The more ecosystem functions you look at, the more important diversity becomes."

The study was based on data from the 120-acre Forest Dynamics Plot, a tropical forest on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal run by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute that has been surveyed every five years since 1985. Previous studies have found that nearly half of the estimated 52 billion tons of carbon stored in the Earth's biomass is found in tropical forests. By simulating different extinction scenarios and analyzing the resulting mix of tree species, the team was able to determine how much carbon the forest was able to hold.


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Source:The Earth Institute at Columbia University


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