Update: Diseased Trees are Potential Source for Greenhouse Gas

Recently, I shared an article with you called “Diseased Trees are Potential Source for Greenhouse Gas“. You may want to take a moment and familiarize yourself with the original article before going any further. In a nutshell, the article laid out some interesting new research by Yale Ph.D. candidate Kristofer Covey. His research centered around the amount of methane gas, well known for its contribution to the greenhouse affect, that trees were putting out. His research found that trees that were diseased with a common fungus had conditions favorable to the production of greenhouse gases. Most of the trees were pretty old between 80-100 years old.

Red Maple
Red Maple which is a significant source of methane. (© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

The reason I am updating this article is because I was able to get in contact with Kris and found out a couple pieces of information that I thought might be worth sharing with you the reader. I had two questions for Kris and he was kind enough to respond. Below, you can see the questions I asked with his answer following.

Question #1. – I am curious how you or the authors feel this affects the global warming debate?

I think the most important thing here is that although it appears as though trees may be producing and releasing significant amounts of methane, they still offer significant climate benefit. Our results indicate that in the stands studied the methane being released is equivalent in it’s climate warming effect to 18% of the carbon sequestered annually. If, as we suspect, this phenomenon is widespread then there would be implications for carbon markets and other programs that make use of forests as a mitigation tool in climate change action.

Question #2. – What potential remedies could be put in place to eliminate the source of this fungal activity?

While there aren’t practical ways to limit fungal infection in forest trees (these fungi are normal and essentially ubiquitous agents); however, we did find species level differences (red maple seems to produce far more than the other species studied ex.) indicating that there may management strategies that could optimize the tradeoff between carbon sequestration and methane production. That said, there’s a great deal of questions to ask before specific recommendations could be made. We are only now recognizing this pathway exists!

I thought it was important to share this information because it clears up some concern that trees aren’t destroying our atmosphere. Basically, even the diseased trees still clean up bad carbon but just not as much as a healthy one could.

For more information about Forestry studies at Yale, visit http://environment.yale.edu/forests/.

Diseased Trees are Potential Source for Greenhouse Gas

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.

Red Maple
Red Maple which is a significant source of methane. (© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

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.