The Amazon Rainforest Can’t Digest as Much Carbon as We Thought

The Amazon Rainforest Can’t Digest As Much Carbon As We Thought

What happens when the Amazon Rainforest has taken in its capacity of carbon?

We’ve long depended on the Amazon Rainforest to help us bear the brunt of climate change. That is–as carbon dioxide has dramatically accelerated, the forests of the world have taken in more carbon than they expel to help keep a balance. But new research shows that the Amazon Rainforest in particular has begun to reduce its uptake of carbon, according to The New York Times.

Researchers from the University of Leeds have concluded that the uptake of carbon dioxide peaked in the 1990s at 2 billion tons per year and since then has started to decline, and today it absorbs half of what it did. And this same decline could happen in other parts of the world, like the boreal forest that encircles the Northern Hemisphere.

Carbon seems to impact the metabolism of trees. So at first trees grow faster and even more abundantly but then they work through their life cycle faster.

“With time, the growth stimulation feeds through the system, causing trees to live faster, and so die younger,” Oliver L. Phillips, a tropical ecologist at the University of Leeds and one of the leaders of the research, said in a statement, reported by The New York Times.

We depend on trees to soak up carbon at a rate that keeps the climate in balance (so we can breathe). Currently, they’re absorbing far more than they’re able to expel. But if trees aren’t able to take in as much as we formerly thought than climate change could come faster than scientists had postulated. Not to mention that even as carbon is accelerating dramatically, our forests are facing increasing difficulties due to other aspects of climate change. For example, climate change is causing the decimation of whitebark pine trees.

According to The New York Times:

A lethal fungus is decimating the pines, as are voracious mountain pine beetles. Making matters worse, forest managers have suppressed the fires that are required to stimulate whitebark pine seedlings.

Half of all whitebark pines are now dead or dying. In 2012, Canada declared the tree an endangered species, and in the United States it is currently a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Even as we need our forests more and more, they’re being ravaged by other serious impacts of climate change. The question becomes, will forests globally also begin reducing the amount of carbon that they absorb as the Amazon is doing?

“Forests are doing us a huge favor, but we can’t rely on them to solve the carbon problem,” Dr. Phillips said to The New York Times. “Instead, deeper cuts in emissions will be required to stabilize our climate.”

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Image of the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest from Rich Carey /