Tropical Forests Vital Weapons in War on Climate Change

Amazonian forests in Bolivia. (Photo by Oriol Massana & Adrià López-Baucells)

(CN) – Even the most optimistic outlooks on global warming must consider the big questions about Earth’s limitations, like how valuable plant life will be in the fight to save the planet over the next century.

Tropical forests will be a vital barrier against rising temperatures as they store large amounts of greenhouse gases, according to a group of researchers from Stanford University, who said the trees will not only rise to the occasion, but pull more than their weight.

That’s thanks to the unique partnership between soil and trees and all the nutrients that play into tree growth.

Trees pull out carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere, and also feed on nitrogen and phosphorous from fungi and rich soil.

That equivalent exchange over the next 100 years was explored in a study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, in which scientists asked if there is a breaking point. Just how much carbon dioxide can trees pull out of the atmosphere before they break? The answer is tricky.

As long as there are nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen for trees, researchers predict plant biomass on earth will increase 12% by 2100 due to increased carbon dioxide levels.

Plants would be able to store more greenhouse gases in the next 100 years based on statistical models and data compiled by researchers from Stanford University. That translates to six years’ worth of current fossil fuel emissions, according to the study.

The study does not consider long-term changes in the carbon cycle, like warming trends, changes in water availability or other variables.

But the study does show for example, tropical forests will grow thanks to the amount of fungi in the ground. Temperate grasslands will see very little growth, while temperate forests could see some of the largest growth spurts thanks to fungi.

What does this all mean?

Researchers stress that deforestation will be a key driver of global warming, because forests across the globe, like the Amazon and Congo, have the greatest potential to slow down warming trends.

Lead author César Terrer, a postdoctoral scholar from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences said, “We have already witnessed indiscriminate logging in pristine tropical forests, which are the largest reservoirs of biomass in the planet. We stand to lose a tremendously important tool to limit global warming.”

He added: “Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the best way to limit further warming. But stopping deforestation and preserving forests so they can grow more is our next-best solution.”

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