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Carbon Storage Shortage? Tropical Forests Are Storing Less Greenhouse Gas Than Thought

Jan 05, 2016 06:52 PM EST
Thai rain forest
A new study has found that previous estimates of carbon storage by tropical forests left out important adjustments, which means that the forests are storing less carbon than thought.
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

The world's tropical forests are storing less carbon than has previously been thought, scientists found in a recent study.

It's important for us to have pretty solid estimates of carbon storage, as world leaders try to work out mitigation agreements, such as those at the recent United Nations Climate Change talks in Paris. As they do that, they need to know how much deforestation is affecting each region.

In these new research findings, the researchers talk about forests where trees have been cleared -- usually for timber, roads or agriculture. As forests become more fragmented, the edges become more dry and exposed and less able to store carbon. The study was published in Nature Communications.

"This is the first predictive study of how exactly carbon storage changes with distance from forest edge," lead author Becky Chaplin-Kramer, of The Natural Capital Project and at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said in a release. "Such predictions can be used to inform how to manage these systems, and refocus priorities towards maintaining larger patches of forest."

An estimated 12 to 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions take place as a result of forest clearing. The Earth has an annual loss of about 200,000 square kilometers of forest (about the size of Cambodia), and a third of that takes place in the tropics, the release confirmed.

It turns out that previous estimates have failed to account for carbon-stock decreases that take place in forests at the locations where they meet land that has been affected by timber cutting or other conversion. Mitigation plans that intend to offset cutting from the timber industry will need adjustment, if officials are to reach goals to stabilize the climate.

"It turns out that when you account for lower carbon stored in the forest edges, the global total in tropical forests is about 10 percent lower than current estimates," said co-author Paul West, of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, in the release. "Our results highlight the impact of breaking up large blocks of forests into smaller chunks. Targeting forest conservation and restoration efforts to fill in the gaps is a win-win for both the climate and natural habitat."

Research institutions on the study included the Natural Capital Project; North Carolina State University; St. Lawrence University; University of Minnesota; Woods Hole Research Center; and Unilever.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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