New Study Finds Trees Absorbing More Carbon than Previously Thought

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A new study has found that, contrary to the expectations of the scientific community, trees are expertly adapting to increased carbon in the atmosphere and absorbing even more carbon while increasing their water use efficiency. However, while these findings reinforce the importance of forests as carbon sinks, many forests are plagued by wildfire and drought. While increased water use efficiency may help trees stave off environmental stresses, without comprehensive climate action, it will only be prolonging the inevitable.

Why This Matters: 
Forests sequester almost one-third of the world’s emissions. When forests are damaged by development, wildfires, and other climate change risks, they can release billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Some of the world’s largest forests have already shown signs of dangerous carbon release:

  • Due to wildfire damage, 20% of the Amazon rainforest is now a net-positive source of carbon dioxide.
  • California’s 2020 wildfires released an estimated 111.7 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

These new findings show that many trees are picking up some of the slack, and can absorb more carbon than previously thought. Experts are hopeful that it may buy us some time to further preserve forests and prevent irreversible damage.

Cold Hard Science: Previously, scientists believed that this increase in water use efficiency was a result of trees’ pores closing due to carbon dioxide, but in reality, 83% of heightened efficiency was caused by an increase in photosynthesis. Researchers found that since 1901, water use efficiency in trees rose by 40% while atmospheric carbon rose by 34%. Both water use efficiency and atmospheric carbon increased alongside each other, accelerating four times faster since the 1960s.

Even over the long-term, these changes are drastic, and Justin Mathias, a co-author of the study, says that the implications are massive. “We’ve shown that over the past century, photosynthesis is actually the overwhelming driver to increases in tree water use efficiency, which is a surprising result because it contradicts many earlier studies,” he said. “On a global scale, this will have large implications potentially for the carbon cycle if more carbon is being transferred from the atmosphere into trees.”

Co-author Richard Thomas says this increased function is crucial to fighting climate change. “Without that, more carbon dioxide would go into the air and build up in the atmosphere even more than it already is, which could exacerbate climate change. Our work shows yet another important reason to preserve and maintain our forests and keep them healthy.”


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