Climate Change Shifts Boreal Forests: Carbon Released in Vast Amounts

First Posted: May 06, 2013 12:04 PM EDT

Climate change can cause effects globally, but it can also impact areas at a local level. Now, researchers have discovered that climate change will not only cause boreal forests to shift north, but also may cause them to release far more carbon than expected, which would exacerbate the phenomenon.

Boreal forests are located in Earth's higher latitudes. Composed of coniferous trees and wetlands, the vegetation itself stores vast amount of carbon and keeps it from our planet's atmosphere, where it could potentially contribute to global warming.  Since these ecosystems rely on cool temperatures, warmer temperatures could vastly impact these forests.

As Earth's climate changes, its ecosystems also shift and change. Vegetation that depends on certain temperatures will move to different locations as global temperatures rise. In order to see exactly where these shifts will occur, researchers mapped Earth's myriad climates by creating incredibly complex computer simulations. These simulations predicted the interaction between climate change and ecosystems, such as boreal forests.

So what did they find? The scientists noted that the models showed that boreal habitat will actually shift to the north in the coming decades. As the trees shift, the southern boundaries of the boreal forest will be overtaken by ecosystems that are better suited to warmer temperatures, such as grassland. While grassland stores a lot of carbon in its soil, this carbon accumulates at a much slower rate than is lost from diminishing forests.

"I found that the boreal ecosystems ringing the globe will be pushed north and replaced in their current location by what's currently to the south," said Charles Koven, one of the scientists who conducted the research, in a news release. "In some places, that will be forest, but in other places it will be grassland. Most Earth system models don't predict this, which means they overestimate the amount of carbon that high-latitude vegetation will store in the future."

The recent findings could mean that scientists need to recalculate climate models that estimate how much carbon will be present in the atmosphere. The research could have major implications for how fast our planet warms and changes, and could show that our Earth's climate is in more trouble than we once expected.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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