Nav: Home

New research suggests forests, like humans, require a balanced diet

December 19, 2018

MORGANTOWN, W. Va.-- The world's forests are on a fast food diet of carbon dioxide, which is currently causing them to grow faster. But a researcher at West Virginia University, along with an international team of scientists, finds evidence suggesting that forest growth may soon peak as the trees deplete nitrogen in the soil over longer growing seasons.

West Virginia's wildlands are a "canary in the coal mine for climate change" because of the forests' biodiversity, which, along with rich soils and abundant rainfall, make them among the strongest forests globally, according to Brenden McNeil, an associate professor of geography at WVU's Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. The state's forests have been resilient to a barrage of logging and acid rain in the 19th and 20th centuries but are now exhibiting symptoms of declining health because of climate change.

Trees, like humans, need to have more than one thing in their diets, McNeil said. And the proliferation of carbon dioxide is force-feeding them the one thing they use most. McNeil said the challenge is to restore a balanced diet for forests by severely cutting back or ending altogether the use of fossil fuels.

"There's more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that's the raw material that trees need to convert to sugar, which they use to grow," he said. "What is profound is that as all the plants grow faster; they're slowing down climate change." But, as he explained, "the plants of the world can't do that forever."

In a paper published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, McNeil and nearly 40 international researchers suggest that most terrestrial ecosystems are seeing declining nitrogen isotopes in foliage on a global scale. It adds global support to a 2017 paper where McNeil was part of another team that used nitrogen isotopes in tree rings to find evidence for declining nitrogen in forests across the United States. Most of the world is still "greening" in response to climate change, but diminishing nitrogen means future growth will become unhealthier and out of balance, and trees will need to work harder to extract the nitrogen, McNeil continued.

His ongoing work, conducted with a team of WVU Honors College undergraduate students, graduate students, as well as Edward Brzostek in the Department of Biology, and Nicolas Zegre in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is examining the responses of West Virginia forests to climate change.

In an area the size of about six football fields in the Summit Bechtel Reserve Scout Camp, this research team is taking an enormous tree census. Scouts also work on measuring the trees in this "citizen-scientist" project focused on mapping 15,000 trees relative to a completed GPS survey grid. This census will provide a baseline for long-term study of tree growth in a changed climate.

Cameras in the tree canopy, millions of laser beams probing the trees' structure and satellite imagery are also helping McNeil and the research team understand how a forest can sustain productivity and how different species adapt to decreased nitrogen and increased carbon dioxide. The team measures everything from the angles of leaves to the breadth and depth of a tree's roots to water and nutrient availability.

All these efforts measuring forests seek to answer a key question: For how long will forests slow down climate change, and help us avoid the coming costs of adapting to a more chaotic climate?

"It's going to cost us a lot more if we do not change now," he said. "As described by the recent Fourth National Climate Assessment, increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is changing our global climate in ways that are costly to our economy."

McNeil said making comparatively small investments to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is akin to paying life insurance premiums. The result of not making the investments now will be the risk of losing the stability of the natural systems that we rely on for food, water and protection against diseases and extreme weather events.

Although McNeil's and the other researchers' predictions sound dire, he believes the planet and humanity will continue to exist, but in a much-changed world both ecologically and economically.

He said as the world turns from fossil fuels to more environmentally friendly sources of energy like solar and wind, the cost-benefit ratio will improve.

"The solutions are here," McNeil said. "It just takes the will to enact them."
-end-


West Virginia University

Related Climate Change Articles:

The black forest and climate change
Silver and Douglas firs could replace Norway spruce in the long run due to their greater resistance to droughts.
For some US counties, climate change will be particularly costly
A highly granular assessment of the impacts of climate change on the US economy suggests that each 1┬░Celsius increase in temperature will cost 1.2 percent of the country's gross domestic product, on average.
Climate change label leads to climate science acceptance
A new Cornell University study finds that labels matter when it comes to acceptance of climate science.
Was that climate change?
A new four-step 'framework' aims to test the contribution of climate change to record-setting extreme weather events.
It's more than just climate change
Accurately modeling climate change and interactive human factors -- including inequality, consumption, and population -- is essential for the effective science-based policies and measures needed to benefit and sustain current and future generations.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#534 Bacteria are Coming for Your OJ
What makes breakfast, breakfast? Well, according to every movie and TV show we've ever seen, a big glass of orange juice is basically required. But our morning grapefruit might be in danger. Why? Citrus greening, a bacteria carried by a bug, has infected 90% of the citrus groves in Florida. It's coming for your OJ. We'll talk with University of Maryland plant virologist Anne Simon about ways to stop the citrus killer, and with science writer and journalist Maryn McKenna about why throwing antibiotics at the problem is probably not the solution. Related links: A Review of the Citrus Greening...