Just when you thought the global warming debate or (depending on the mood that week) climate change debate, couldn’t get any more complicated, new research suggests that trees may be a significant source of the greenhouse gas, methane. That’s right folks, I said trees. You know, those things we plant in droves every Earth Day while singing some happy tune about saving the environment and making the world a better place to breathe. I really don’t mean to sound snarky here, but the poor global warming debate is already hopelessly mired in political rhetoric as it is. Now, we have to contend with research suggesting that trees may be a significant contributor of methane, which is a greenhouse gas.
Now, before you go get the chainsaws and start deforesting the neighborhood, let’s put this new study in context. Researchers at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies examined 60 trees at Yale Myers Forest in northeastern Connecticut. They tested for concentrations of methane and found that these particular trees had concentrations 80,000 times ambient levels. It is important to note that the trees themselves weren’t the culprit rather, it was a fungus that was eating them from the inside out. This resulted in favorable conditions for methane producing microorganisms called methanogens. Most of these trees were between 80-100 years old and were diseased. Red maples showed the highest concentrations of methane but other significant contributors were oak, birch and pine. Methane levels were also more than 3 times higher during the summer which suggests that summer heat and higher methane output could create a spiral of elevating temperatures.
According to a Yale press release, “These are flammable concentrations,” said Kristofer Covey, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. “Because the conditions thought to be driving this process are common throughout the world’s forests, we believe we have found a globally significant new source of this potent greenhouse gas.” “No one until now has linked the idea that fungal rot of timber trees, a production problem in commercial forestry, might also present a problem for greenhouse gas and climate change mitigation,” said Mark Bradford, a co-author and Assistant Professor of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology at F&ES.
This is groundbreaking research because no previous studies have made the correlation between fungal timber rot and increased green house emissions. These findings present a new target for scientists interested in climate change and the potential that aging forests may have on greenhouse gasses. This study was published in Geophysical Research Letters.