Forests Weaken Under Carbon Strain
April 9, 2012

Forests Weaken Under Carbon Strain

As part of an ongoing study, scientists are now forecasting potential forest carbon loss. Working with the Harvard Forest, Smithsonian Institution and LTER Network, scientists have been closely monitoring carbon levels in Massachusetts for more than 30 years. Based on trends in these forests, the scientists are predicting a carbon loss of up to 18% over the next 50 years. In fact, based on these findings, it would be less harmful to harvest these forests instead.

“The rebounding forests of New England provide a tremendous public benefit by storing carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change,” said Jonathan Thompson, Research Ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Research Associate at the Harvard Forest, and lead author on the paper which appeared in the journal Ecological Applications in late 2011.

Thompson´s group gathered data from the Harvard Forests, used by Harvard University to study different ecological and environmental issues. According to a press release, Thompson said, “In Massachusetts, forests capture approximately 2.3 million metric tons of carbon each year. That´s equal to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from the energy used by one million American homes annually.”

Thompson and his team are involved with the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. The LTER Network is an ongoing collaborative effort of more than 1,800 scientists and researchers. Members of the LTER Network gather data in order to study long-term systems and processes of our environment.

David Foster co-authored the Ecological Applications paper in 2011 with Thompson and notes the importance of having such an extensive amount of information, saying they are now able to solve complicated environmental issues across large areas. Furthermore, with such an extensive amount of information about the way carbon is stored in these forests, the Harvard scientists are now able to forecast how much carbon will be stored in the next 50 years.

To gather this information, scientists climb high into towers placed in the Harvard forest. There, they take measurements of the tree trunks to determine the amount of carbon stored within.

As carbons are emitted into the atmosphere via energy emissions, the world´s forests capture some of these carbons, cleaning the air and reducing the impact on the atmosphere. When these trees and forests become overwhelmed with carbon, they are unable to keep up and process it, taking on more and more, storing it in their trunks. As more carbon is being released into the atmosphere, these forests will continue to take on more than they are able to handle. This concerns scientists, as such large amounts of carbon can lead to damaging ecological effects, such as climate change. All is not lost, however. According to Foster, if urban landscape and private forestation development continues, their forecast may be different later on. Says Foster, “The good news is that forests are resilient and history is not necessarily destiny. Our research makes a compelling case for expanding support for forestland protection and for the efforts of private landowners to keep their land forested. It reminds us that forests provide important infrastructure that we should invest in, just as we do major civil works projects.”