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Climate Change, Wildfire Events Could Decrease Carbon-Storing Ability of Sierra Nevada Mountains

May 26, 2017 09:28 AM EDT

A new study by a multi-university team of researchers revealed that the changing climate and higher rates of wildfire events could negatively affect the ability of Sierra Nevada Mountain to take up and store carbon

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, showed that the warmer and dryer conditions brought about by global warming could lessen the number of tree species available in the area. A decrease in local tree population means lesser carbon uptake in forests.

"What we've been trying to do is really understand how changing climate, increases in temperatures and decreases in precipitation, will alter carbon uptake in forests," said Matthew Hurteau, an assistant professor and University of Mexico and co-author of the study, in a press release. "The other aspect of this work is looking at disturbance events like large scale wildfires. Those events volatilize a lot of carbon and can kill many trees, leaving fewer trees to continue to take up the carbon."

For the study, the researchers run ecosystem model simulations using climate projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By looking at the different tree species at Sierra Nevada, the researchers tried to understand how the different tree species will react to the projected climate and wildfire. With the help of the individual date of tree species, the researchers were able to estimate the possible carbon uptake of the mountain.

The researchers noted that there would be a huge decline in the ability of Sierra Nevada to store carbon if the trend of warming temperatures and increasing wildfires continues. In their simulations, the researchers observed that the mean amount of carbon loss from the forest could reach at least 663 teragrams, which is equal to about 73 percent of the total above ground carbon stock in California vegetation in 2010.

Vegetation and oceans take up roughly half of the carbon emitted by humans. However, the researchers warned that the ability of the forest to suck up and store carbon is slowly decreasing due to climate change and wildfires. As the forest's carbon-storing ability fades, more carbon makes it way up to the atmosphere.

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