Trees and carbon intake: the bigger the better

By Lauren Lewis

One of the defining characteristics of trees as compared to other plants is their longevity. Their growth patterns at the cellular level evolved not just for reaching up and out but also for “secondary growth”- the layering, repetitive cell growth that thickens the plant, making it highly stable and durable. This and other longevity adaptations mean trees have much to teach us about the environment of their past, and an important protective role to play as we navigate a changing climate.

Take the bristlecone pine: the oldest non-cloning lifeform on earth. The oldest bristlecones are around 5000 years old, and 3000 years would not be unusual. A big part of this longevity is that bristlecones live in extreme mountain environments where few other plants can live. This means the pines have little competition for resources and also that plant mass that could fuel fires around them is minimal. But bristlecones also have some special adaptations that keep them going. Their wood is high in resin that is an effective deterrent to pests. And they can compartmentalize to minimize damage- when a large root dies, the corresponding section of the tree and it’s bark dies too, which keeps the damage from spreading inside the tree. Eucalyptus does a similar thing, dropping a limb when the tree is stressed, to reduce the resources needed by the tree rather than letting the whole tree struggle.

Tree rings have long been used to understand the age of trees, but they’re now also being used to better understand climate change. After California’s severe drought in 2012-14, some physical geographers used cores of living blue oaks and blue oak stumps to address the question of whether the drought was really very unusual or not. They correlated tree ring thickness with precipitation and temperatures records from the last 100 or so years, and then measured tree rings going back 1200 years to infer the climate in those years. They found that the precipitation wasn’t exceptionally low as compared to previous droughts, but that when you added in the high temperature (and therefore the greater evaporation and overall lower available moisture to the trees), the 2014 drought was indeed exceptionally extreme.

So trees can teach us about ancient climate, and schoolchildren know that Earth’s rainforests act like the planet’s lungs by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. But it also turns out that bigger trees are doing relatively more of this crucial work than smaller ones. In a study of over 400 tree species from various latitudes and longitudes, researchers found that as tree size goes up, so does mass growth rate (or rate that the tree builds mass), and therefore carbon accumulation. As an example, in the study’s American old growth forest sites, trees of >100cm diameter “comprised 6% of trees, yet contributed 33% of the annual forest mass growth.” So while it’s great to plant new trees to offset air travel, it’s Earth’s huge, old trees that do more to slow the accumulation of atmospheric carbon. They merit passionate preservation for this and so many other services they provide.


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