According to a new study by an international team of experts, decomposing wood releases roughly 10.9 gigatons of carbon per year worldwideThis equates to around 115 percent of fossil fuel emissions

Living trees absorb a significant quantity of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and serve a critical role in climate protection.

However, little is known about dead trees' function in the global carbon cycle. One of the essential processes in forests is the decay of wood and the recycling of its nutrients.

Researchers lay out wood from more than 140 tree species in 55 forest areas across six continents to analyze the impact of climate on decomposition rate.

Mesh cages were used to contain half of the wood. These cages kept insects from the decomposition process and allowed researchers to assess their contribution to wood breakdown.

Montana Forests Struggle With Climate Change
(Photo : Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
MISSOULA, MONTANA - SEPTEMBER 19: Smoke rises from prescribed burning of log piles, part of the Marshall Woods Restoration Project at the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area in the Lolo National Forest September 19, 2019 in Missoula, Montana. 

Contributing to the Global Carbon Cycle

Professor David Lindenmayer of The Australian National University (ANU) and co-author of the study, says it's the first time researchers have been able to quantify deadwood's contribution to the global carbon cycle.

Professor Lindenmayer stated, "Until today, little has been understood about the role of dead trees."

"We already know that living plants help to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But we didn't know what happens when such trees degrade until today. It turns out that it has a significant impact."

Decaying Naturally

(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

Natural factors such as warmth and insects, according to Professor Lindenmayer, are driving the decay.

"In forests, the decay of wood and the recycling of those nutrients is a key process," he explained.

According to the study, decomposition cannot occur without the presence of wood-boring insects such as Longicorn Beetles.

"We knew termites and wood-boring Longicorn beetles might speed up the decomposition of deadwood," said research co-author Dr. Marisa Stone of Griffith University.

"However, we didn't know how much they contributed to global deadwood carbon emission until recently.

"Insects were responsible for 29% of annual deadwood carbon emission. However, their impact was disproportionately stronger in the tropics, with little effect in colder regions."

Studying Forests Around the World

(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

On six continents, the global research initiative covered 55 forest areas. The researchers looked at wood from over 140 different tree species to see how climate affects the pace of disintegration.

Professor Lindenmayer explained, "Half of the wood was placed in mesh cages that kept insects out, allowing us to evaluate their contribution."

"We discovered that the climate greatly influences both the pace of decomposition and the contribution of insects and that both will climb as temperatures rise. In warmer climates, higher precipitation speeds up decomposition, while it slows it down."

Due to their high wood mass and rapid decomposition rates, tropical forests provide 93 percent of all carbon released by deadwood.

Dr. Sebastian Seibold of the Technical University of Munich led the research.

"We can witness some substantial decreases in biodiversity and changes in climate at a period of global change," Dr. Seibold added.

"This research has shown that both climate change and insect extinction have the potential to influence wood breakdown, and so carbon and nutrient cycles around the world."

Related Article: Why Should We Start Planting More Sequoia Trees?

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