Study shows trees could face growth decline, limiting ability to absorb carbon dioxide

Published: Monday, January 31, 2022 - 12:55pm
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Climate change has been showing its effects by stressing ecosystems, and according to researchers with the University of Arizona, it could lead to trees not being able to grow as tall as they do today. 

Using tree ring data from the U.S. Forest Service on Arizona’s Ponderosa Pines, the researchers were able to build a model to predict a 56% to 91% decrease in individual tree growth by 2100. 

Study lead author Kelly Heilman says this will likely lead to forests not being able to absorb as much carbon dioxide in the future. 

“When it was much hotter and dryer they had less growth overall. And that’s sort of the trend we are seeing in the future, in many places in Arizona it’s going to be hotter and dryer," Heilman said. 

One problem the researchers faced was how infrequent the Forest Service gathered census data on trees, once every 5-10 years depending on the area. 

"We can recalibrate our model," she said "it has the potential to be updated the next time we get more data."

Heilman says more data creates a more accurate model. She says more data could help the find factors that help mitigate climate change's effects. 

Co-author Margaret Evans says complications from climate change have had greater effects on ecosystems hurting trees. 

The study found that trees in denser forests struggle more as they compete for resources. She said forests are the most important terrestrial tool to absorb carbon dioxide. 

“There’s a lot of excitement in the press and among policy circles, if you plant a billion trees, we’re gonna fix the climate crisis. And it’s unfortunately not that simple," Evans said. 

Evans added drought-stressed trees are more vulnerable to insect attacks and wildfires.  

"There's a lot of scientific uncertainty about how long and how much they are going to mitigate climate change because climate itself is causing stress on these ecosystems,” Evans said.

Evans says she hopes this model could be used on a national level to be implemented as the way they do carbon accounting. 

Climate Change