Tropical Forest Carbon Absorption May Hinge on an Odd Couple

16 September 2013

A unique housing arrangement between a specific group of tree species and a carbo-loading bacteria may determine how well tropical forests can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to a Princeton University-based study. The findings suggest that the role of tropical forests in offsetting the atmospheric buildup of carbon from fossil fuels depends on tree diversity, particularly in forests recovering from exploitation.

Tropical forests thrive on natural nitrogen fertilizer pumped into the soil by trees in the legume family, a diverse group that includes beans and peas, the researchers report in the journal Nature. The researchers studied second-growth forests in Panama that had been used for agriculture five to 300 years ago. The presence of legume trees ensured rapid forest growth in the first 12 years of recovery and thus a substantial carbon "sink," or carbon-storage capacity. Tracts of land that were pasture only 12 years before had already accumulated as much as 40 percent of the carbon found in fully mature forests. Legumes contributed more than half of the nitrogen needed to make that happen, the researchers reported.

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