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Boreal Forests Slow CO2 Absorption as the Earth Warms

by Magnifico Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 04:39:40 AM EST

More unfortunate climate change news for us and the Democratic presidential candidates in the U.S. -- this time from the boreal forests. The Guardian and others are reporting on a new study that finds trees are absorbing less CO2 as the world warms.

The ability of forests to soak up man-made carbon dioxide is weakening, according to an analysis of two decades of data from more than 30 sites in the frozen north.

The finding published today is crucial, because it means that more of the CO2 we release will end up affecting the climate in the atmosphere rather than being safely locked away in trees or soil.

The results may partly explain recent studies suggesting that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing faster than expected. If higher temperatures mean less carbon is soaked up by plants and microbes, global warming will accelerate.

Worldwide, only tropical rainforests are larger then boreal or northern forests. They cover Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia.


Any minor change in their ability to use CO2 could have serious climate impact across the entire earth. Previously there was some optimism that a greening in the northern forests would help reduce CO2, but instead it could lead to increased warming.

The research study, Net carbon dioxide losses of northern ecosystems in response to autumn warming is being published today by the science journal Nature and was conducted by a team of Canadian, Chinese, and European researchers.

As the story about the study, New research suggests longer autumns inhibit carbon uptake in forests in the Canadian Press notes, "theories suggesting warmer springs and summers will reduce carbon dioxide through greater growing activity are probably too optimistic." The reason being is autumn temperatures are warming faster than spring temperatures. So, combined with hours of daylight growing shorter as the winter approaches, trees absorption of CO2 slows down "while carbon emissions increase as busy soil microbes feast on a fresh crop of fallen leaves." So warmer autumns null out warm springs.

As The Guardian story explains this is a "surprise rethink" and "the research could partly explain results by the Global Carbon Project, which confirmed that the rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere is accelerating." The increase is partially due to increased CO2 emissions from China and other nations, but research suggests "weakening carbon sinks were also to blame."

The use of forest carbon sinks is advocated by each of the three of Democratic frontrunners -- Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. Each plan to use trees in some way to help remove the carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. But this new study suggests with northern forests lessening ability to absorb CO2, then plans that are based on trees -- especially northern trees -- may need to be rethought.

According to John Miller, a University of Colorado Climate scientist who the Guardian article quotes as commenting on the study, 50 percent of all of the CO2 we produce is being removed already by the oceans and land ecosystems. "Unfortunately," he writes, "we have no guarantee that the 50% discount will continue, and if it disappears we will feel the full climatic brunt of our unrelenting emission of CO2 from fossil fuels."

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the earth has been sequestering carbon away, lessening the brunt of our carbon lifestyle, but we keeping more CO2 into the atmosphere than the earth's systems can mitigate. So part of our rethinking about how to address global warming, I think we and America's presidential candidates will need to include ways to significantly reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. If we don't, the earth is indicating its forests won't be able to keep helping.

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"I talk to the trees... that's why they put me away." -- Eccles from The Goon Show.
by Magnifico on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 04:42:23 AM EST
LOL

You deaded me..!

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 04:53:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent diary, Magnifico.

If the northern forests are losing their CO2 sink capacity, it seems all the more urgent to stop destroying tropical rainforest.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 04:56:28 AM EST
I think our forests, especially our tropical forests, are priceless. I believe certainly they are worth more as carbon sinks and ecosystems than the wood is worth as timber or the forest land is worth for soya, sugar cane, or palm oil agribusiness.

I think if we in the West are going to continue as a civilization, then we must fully factor the cost of carbon into our economy.

by Magnifico on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 05:06:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - Boreal Forests Slow CO2 Absorbtion as the Earth Warms
The use of forest carbon sinks is advocated by each of the three of Democratic frontrunners -- Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. Each plan to use trees in some way to help remove the carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. But this new study suggests with northern forests lessening ability to absorb CO2, then plans that are based on trees -- especially northern trees -- may need to be rethought.
In other words, the three Democratic front-runners advocate doing anything but changing the inalienable American consumption and pollution patters.

How is it bad news that they're shown to be wrong before they're in office?

It would be interesting to write to their campaign headquarters with something to the effect of "seeing as though global warming makes trees less effective in absorbing CO2, will you rethink your global warming policy proposals?"

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 05:23:53 AM EST
And, they all seem pretty anemic to me.

This is what Senator Hillary Clinton says:

I want to focus on international attention to solve the problem of global deforestation. We're losing our forests dramatically. They play such an important role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and we need to figure out how to have a win-win strategy for that.

This is John Edwards' plan:

Create GreenCorps: Idealistic young Americans can help fight climate change by conducting volunteer energy audits, weatherizing homes, installing home solar panels, and training neighborhood groups to do the same. Volunteers will also plant carbon sinks - such as fast-growing forests that store carbon - on urban, conservation and federal lands. Edwards will create a GreenCorps within AmeriCorps to create opportunities for them to serve.

And Senator Barack Obama idea is this:

Confront Deforestation and Promote Carbon Sequestration: Obama will develop domestic incentives that reward forest owners, farmers, and ranchers when they plant trees, restore grasslands, or undertake farming practices that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Yes, your question would be good to ask each of them.

What really all of the world's politicians should be advocating is reducing carbon emissions and changing a carbon lifestyle, none of the leaders around the world that I'm familiar with -- not just in the United States -- is advocating cutting back consumption and consequently emissions that go with that.

I believe capitalism based on growth and resource consumption doesn't work and no leader wants to admit that.

by Magnifico on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 05:31:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I like Edwards' for two reasons.

First: trees are just one of many things mentioned, and almost as an afterthought. Second: if instead of making it a volunteer corps the volunteers receive a stipend it will be a much needed keynesian stimulus. Even without paying for the labour (ugh!!!) it will increase the demand for efficient energy technologies and make them more viable and cheaper, as well as improving the energy efficiency of teh country generally.

Is that all that Hillary Clinton says? "trees play such an important role and we need to figure out a win-win strategy for reforestation"? Please say it ain't

Obama's smacks of agribusiness subsidies: he will reward domestic land owners for engaging in practices that improve carbon sequestration.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 05:37:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think little is accomplished, long term, by a volunteer basis. Bush's whole climate change mitigation plan is voluntary haha. So Bush believes the big carbon emitters will voluntarily cut back haha.

So Edward's voluntary plans I think are just a foolish. I believe if it is important, then you give it a budget and make people responsible to make sure it gets done.

I searched Clinton's campaign site and that was the best I could find. On her "Energy independence and global warming" issues page there is no mention of forests or, for that matter, trees. That quote came from a speech.

My impression of Obama is that he is big on subsidies for agribusiness and "clean" haha coal.

by Magnifico on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 05:43:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I suspect the reason Edwards talks about volunteers is that he doesn't want to say the words "New Deal". Is that tactical or not?

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 06:25:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I hope that it is 'tactical'. FDR was clever with his use of rhetoric, "Lend-Lease" comes to mind.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, eager to ensure public consent for this controversial plan, explained to the public and the press that his plan was comparable to one neighbor's lending another a garden hose to put out a fire in his home. "What do I do in such a crisis?" the president asked at a press conference. "I don't say... 'Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it' ...I don't want $15 -- I want my garden hose back after the fire is over."

Maybe Edwards is being tactical, but I wonder if his populism is genuine and if it will translate to true progressive policies. The United States isn't in the economic straits that it was during the Great Depression, however Bush, Congress, and Greenspan have all done their part to make it possible.

by Magnifico on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 06:34:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It isn't now, but it's not a preposterous suggestion that it might be in January 2009.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 06:37:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Magnifico:
On her "Energy independence and global warming" issues page there is no mention of forests or, for that matter, trees.
Wait, maybe that is okay, then? From your diary I got the impression that the frontrunners made reforestation for carbon sinks a key policy, which in light of the newer data would seem to be a problem. But if trees are not important to them it doesn't matter that trees won't work as well as previously expected.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 06:28:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Key policy may be a stretch, it is part of Edwards and Obama's global warming mitigation plans.

The reason I mentioned the three Democratic front runners is the next president will have a significant role, I believe, to play addressing climate change. All three of their plans to address climate change are weak, in my opinion, and rely too much on hope and technological breakthroughs that may never come. Plus, for the American audience -- getting people to pay attention to the environment on Iowa caucus day -- is an uphill battle.

by Magnifico on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 06:44:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... of the Peace Corps and the domestic 1960 "volunteer" program (whatitsname), which the name suggests, it wouldn't be entirely unpaid work ... there would not be a wage/salary, but there would be a stipend.

And of course if college students are using it to cover the 10 hours of work a week to participate in the College for Everyone program, that would generate a regular new supply of volunteers.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 02:56:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... cut down all the trees, a state at a time.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 05:52:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The effect forests have is not understood well enough yet.

See e.g.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Trees to offset the carbon footprint? (April 10, 2007)

How effective are new trees in offsetting the carbon footprint? A new study suggests that the location of the new trees is an important factor when considering such carbon offset projects. Planting and preserving forests in the tropics is more likely to slow down global warming.

But the study concludes that planting new trees in certain parts of the planet may actually warm the Earth.

(...)

Forests affect climate in three different ways: they absorb the greenhouse gas - carbon dioxide - from the atmosphere and help keep the planet cool; they evaporate water to the atmosphere and increase cloudiness, which also helps keep the planet cool; and they are dark and absorb sunlight (the albedo effect), warming the Earth. Previous climate change mitigation strategies that promote planting trees have taken only the first effect into account.

"Our study shows that only tropical rainforests are strongly beneficial in helping slow down global warming," Bala said. "It is a win-win situation in the tropics because trees in the tropics, in addition to absorbing carbon dioxide, promote convective clouds that help to cool the planet. In other locations, the warming from the albedo effect either cancels or exceeds the net cooling from the other two effects."

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 06:46:15 AM EST
I think the study you mention does seem, somewhat, to agree with the research published in Nature. What those researchers were looking at were the affects a warmer environment has on boreal forests.

While not part of their study, the tropical rainforests do seem to be key in slowing down global warming.

I wonder though, if by the time we fully understand -- as in science has reached a consensus -- the effect forests it will be too late to best utilize the knowledge?

by Magnifico on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 06:51:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The studies seem largely congruent as to the effect (a slower-growing boreal forest will still have largely the same albedo effect, I'd reckon).

Forests are largely a political distraction today, from taking the necessary measures to reduce climate pollution. It's good to have them off the table for the purpose of pushing the point that the solution is to stop polluting.

So, the best solution is to do something else, and grow forests for all the good reasons there are for growing forests outside of the climate change issue.

Tropical forests are the exception to this. We still haven't succeeded in stopping their reduction, even though protecting the rainforest is something we got concerned about a long time ago, independent of the climate change issue. It is important to make the local community responsible for nature protection. I'm worried that a structure for transferring funds for nature protection to countries in the tropics will ignore that.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 07:38:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've seen numbers that show that the amount of carbon locked in the Taiga is 8.8 kg/m2 for a total of 84 x 109 T C (giga-tonnes) - ie several billion supertankers worth.

I've also seen figures from Russia that show that an annual rise in average temperature of 2-3 degs C in the Taiga region would turn it into a tinderbox. Siberian forest fires are already a huge problem.

Although focused on Finland, The Finnish Forest Research Institute (METLA) has global coverage and interests.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 07:14:33 AM EST
Yes, but at the same time, the fossil record proves that there have been episodes of higher temperature in the last few million years, which have not released gigatons of methane from the permafrost or the sea clathrates. So climate scientist do not know where we stand here, the truth is we have no clear understanding of how methane gets locked up in the first place, and what exactly is needed to unlock it.

Pierre
by Pierre on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 07:19:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree we don't know for sure, since we don't know the role of airborne or ground mositure in the last few million years. But, anecdotally, I have a few friends who fly to China from Finland regularly and all report increasing evidence of major fires during recent summers.

*Fire, Climate Change, and Carbon Cycling in the Boreal Forest edited by Eric Kasishke

*The Role of Fire in Northern Circumpolar Ecosystems (SCOPE Report) by Ross W. Wein

*Fire in Ecosystems of Boreal Eurasia (Forestry Sciences) by Johann Georg Goldammer

*Global Biomass Burning: Atmospheric, Climatic, and Biospheric Implications by Joel S. Levine

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 07:34:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but burning releases CO2. unlocking permafrost methane or clathrate releases, well, methane, which more abundant in those fossil reservoirs than burnable biomass on the surface, and also methane has 20x more efficient greenhouse effect. So it super-spike in atmospheric methane would be a near-extinction-of-life event. The fossil records show these happened many times, some of these possibly triggered by methane or sulfur releases (from volcanoes). But in the last few million years (where ice cores give us methane ppm), we know there has been no super-spike in methane, despite a few episodes of significantly warmer-than-present temperatures.

Pierre
by Pierre on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 08:38:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Related to that is the impact of changing rainfall patterns on forests. Here in California the heavily forested Sierra Nevada is facing a devastating impact from climate change. Already we're seeing how drought has weakened Southern California forests and worsened fires there.

Dead forests burn, and burning surely contributes CO2 to the atmosphere...

And the world will live as one

by Montereyan (robert at calitics dot com) on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 01:44:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah. I think by preventing the forests from burning naturally and pumping CO2 into the atmosphere we've messed up the climate and the natural carbon capture function of forests.

Fire is part of the ecosystem. After years of preventing the forest fires, forestry practices have managed to weaken the forests themselves. I think the CO2 release from forest fire is part of the earth's carbon capture system, but I believe we've hijacked the forests - preventing them from burning and allowing to absorb the carbon dioxide we emit from fossil fuels.

The weakened forests have allowed pests to further damage and weaken the trees. For example, the pine beetle threatens Canada's boreal forest.

Mountain pine beetles began invading parts of Alberta four years ago. If the beetles jump from the lodgepole pine to the jack pine, an infestation could wipe out billions of trees all the way to the East Coast, he said.

Jasper National Park warden Dave Smith said because Canadians are so good at preventing fires, the forests are old, weak and susceptible to infestation...

Global warming has also helped the pine beetle along, as cold winters can help slow infestations.

by Magnifico on Thu Jan 3rd, 2008 at 03:18:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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