For a decade, logging tropical forests releases carbon.

Tropical forests are particularly vulnerable to deforestation because they store a significant portion of the world’s biodiversity and serve as significant carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is obvious that these forests do not absorb additional carbon from the atmosphere if we cut them down, but the situation gets even worse. Studies done in the past suggested that forests can still store carbon after trees are cut down because new trees grow quickly. A new study, on the other hand, suggests otherwise.

The carbon uptake and emissions from forests in Borneo, Malaysia, were estimated by researchers from the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystem (SAFE) Project. Deforestation (when a forest is completely cut down) and forest degradation have had a significant impact on the region over the past few decades.

The study demonstrated that the emissions from soil organic matter and deadwood outweigh the carbon uptake from regrown trees following logging. Despite focusing on a single subject, the researchers believe the repercussions are significant. It’s possible that tropical forests around the world are not capturing as much carbon as expected.

“Our results show that for the tropical forest we studied, logged areas are a source of carbon even a decade after logging has occurred. This means we need to reassess their role in global carbon budgets – we can no longer apply the blanket assumption that they are carbon sinks,” Maria Millis, study author and researcher, said in a statement.

The land is a “carbon sink” because it absorbs or “captures” about 30% of global emissions of greenhouse gases. A study found that tropical forests play a particularly significant role because they absorbed 15% of all emissions between 1990 and 2007. However, even in unaffected forests, their capacity to absorb carbon is rapidly diminishing.

The majority of studies on forests recovering from deforestation or degradation have focused on estimating the amount of carbon captured by measuring three growth. A new dimension was added by the new study, which also measured the amount of carbon coming from the ground. This made it possible to estimate the Malaysian forest’s total carbon budget.

The study’s forest plots had been logged in various stages over the past few decades. Using a portable CO2 monitor, the researchers tested bits of deadwood and patches of land between 2011 and 2017. In addition, they constructed a tower above the forest canopy in order to measure the carbon flux into and out of the forest.

The researchers discovered that moderately and heavily logged forests contain carbon, while unlogged forests generally do not. They estimated that moderately logged plots had a carbon source of between 1.74 and 0.94 tons of carbon per hectare, while severely degraded plots had a carbon source of between 5.23 and 1.2 tons, and that emissions would continue for at least a decade.

“A lot of the carbon released in recovering forests is from collateral damage – trees that have died as a result of damage during logging, and from disturbed soil,” Terhi Ruitta, study co-author, said in a statement. “Logged forests still have value, so making sure they aren’t releasing extra carbon through better logging practices will boost their sustainability.”

If we don’t do more to preserve forests and plant new ones, we won’t be able to avoid a climate catastrophe in the long run. Since we do not have a technological means of removing carbon from the atmosphere, forests are the only short-term solution for reducing greenhouse gases that are already present. On the climate front, there may be little success if we continue to degrade and destroy forests.

The study was presented in the PNAS journal.


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