Tropical forests store about a third of Earth’s carbon and about two-thirds of its above-ground biomass. Most climate change models predict that as the world warms, all of that biomass will decompose more quickly, which would send a lot more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But new research presented at the American Geophysical Union’s 2018 Fall Meeting contradicts that theory.
Biomass in the warmed plots broke down more slowly than samples from a control site that wasn’t warmed.
Her results indicate that as the climate warms, forest litter could pile up on the ground, instead of breaking down into the soil. Less decomposition means less carbon dioxide released back into the atmosphere. But it also means less carbon taken up by the soil, where it’s needed to fuel microbial processes that help plants grow.
She had collected samples from the first few months of the experiment, and they were already showing signs of significant decomposition, so she decided to go ahead with the analysis based on what she had. And the results were not what she thought they would be.
“We would expect that microbes tend to work faster, like their metabolisms increase, with warmer temperatures,” Roe said. “So we would expect to see an increase of activity of microbes and other decomposers to decompose the litter.”
But instead of seeing faster rates of decomposition, Roe observed the warming produced a drying effect in the plots, which slowed decomposition. “What we found is actually it went the other way because moisture was impacted so much,” Roe said. Moisture in the litter from the treatment sites was reduced by an average of 38 percent.
The Work Has Not Analyzed Fire Risks
Slower decomposition can leave more dry biomass above ground, which could increase fire risks.