Old oaks learn new tricks! Mature trees can boost the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb, study finds – in breakthrough that could buy humanity ‘extra headroom’ to fight climate change
- Researchers used giant masts to emit extra carbon dioxide (CO2) over woodland
- 175-year-old oaks responded by greatly increasing their rate of photosynthesis
- The study suggests mature trees could help in the fight against climate change
Mature trees can boost the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) they absorb, a new study shows, which is ‘good news’ in the fight against climate change.
Scientists in Birmingham conducted a giant outdoor experiment on oak trees in rural England that had reached ‘middle age’, meaning they’d stopped growing upwards.
The trees increased their rate of photosynthesis by up to a third when exposed to elevated levels of CO2 from the air, they found.
The fact that mature trees are so abundant around the world might give humanity ‘extra headroom’ to fight climate change.
Forests are widely recognised as important ‘carbon sinks’ – ecosystems that are capable of capturing and storing large amounts of CO2.
Mature oak trees will increase their rate of photosynthesis by up to a third in response to the raised CO2 levels expected in 2050, University of Birmingham experts report. the researchers conducted a giant outdoor experiment on oak trees in Staffordshire (pictured)
HOW OLD IS THE OLDEST TREE?
The oldest trees on Earth have stood for nearly five millennia.
The oldest individual tree in the world is thought to be in the US, where a Great Basin bristlecone pine in California’s White Mountains has been aged at more than 5,000 years.
A Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland, is believed to be the oldest tree in the UK, with an estimated age between 2,000 and 3,000 years, according to the Woodland Trust.
Long-lived trees have received special attention in the study of ageing, as ‘a sort of mirror’ in which we could potentially see ourselves reflected in our efforts to achieve greater longevity.
The research was conducted on trees in Staffordshire at the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) and published in Tree Physiology.
‘We are sure now that the old trees are responding to future carbon dioxide levels,’ said Professor Rob MacKenzie, founding Director of BIFoR.
‘How the entire forest ecosystem responds is a much bigger question requiring many more detailed investigations. We are now pushing ahead with those investigations.’
For the study, the 175-year-old oak trees in Staffordshire were bathed in air with 37 per cent more CO2 than normal – mimicking levels that are expected in the air by 2050.
Experiments were based at Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (FACE), a research facility set in mature, unmanaged woodland, located about a one-hour drive from the main University of Birmingham campus.
FACE consists of a network of tall masts, which look a bit like electricity pylons, that emit CO2 to the surrounding trees.
Leaves at the top of the canopy were then analysed for their photosynthetic response, by researchers in harnesses up to 75 feet off the ground.
Over the first three years of their 10-year project, the researchers found that the oaks increased their rate of photosynthesis by up to 33 per cent.
Researchers are now measuring leaves, wood, roots, and soil to find out where the extra carbon captured ends up and for how long it stays locked up in the forest.
A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.
The ocean, atmosphere, soil and forests are the world’s largest carbon sinks.
In contrast, ‘a carbon source’ is anything that releases more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbs – for example, the burning of fossil fuels or volcanic eruptions.
Professor Mackenzie said the study was at an early stage, but so far it’s ‘good news’, he told the Times, partly because mature trees make up the bulk of the world’s forests.
Forests absorb 25 to 30 per cent of the extra CO2 released into the air by human activity, and may be able to maintain a similar percentage as levels increase.
‘Perhaps the world’s forest is going to continue delivering that drawdown of carbon and that it will give us a few years … of extra headroom in our climate mitigation,’ Professor Mackenzie said.
‘That’s about as much as we can hope for – it doesn’t make the problem go away.’
Interestingly, the overall balance of key nutrient elements carbon and nitrogen did not change in the leaves.
Keeping the carbon to nitrogen ratio constant suggests that the old trees have found ways of redirecting their elements, or found ways of bringing more nitrogen in from the soil to balance the carbon they are gaining from the air.
The research was carried out in collaboration with colleagues from Western Sydney University who run a very similar experiment in old eucalyptus forest (EucFACE) north west of the Australian city.
University of Birmingham built a Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (FACE) experiment, set in mature, unmanaged, temperate woodland. It is located on private land in Staffordshire, about a 1-hour drive from the main University campus
‘Previous work at EucFACE measured photosynthesis increased by up to a fifth in increased carbon dioxide,’ said study author Professor David Ellsworth at Western Sydney University.
‘So, we now know how old forest responds in the warm-temperate climate that we have here in Sydney, and the mild temperate climate of the northern middle latitudes where Birmingham sits.
‘At EucFACE we found no additional growth in higher CO2, and it remains to be seen if that will be the case for BIFOR as well.’
An increase in CO2 in the atmosphere – a key ingredient for photosynthesis – can trigger growth spurts for tree species, but too much can have negative consequences, a previous study suggests.
HOW DOES PHOTOSYNTHESIS WORK?
Photosynthesis is a chemical process used by plants to convert light energy and carbon dioxide into glucose for the plant to grow, releasing oxygen in the process.
The leaves of green plants contain hundreds of pigment molecules (chlorophyll and others) that absorb light at specific wavelengths.
When light of the proper wavelength strikes one of these molecules, the molecule enters an excited state – and energy from this excited state is shuttled along a chain of pigment molecules until it reaches a specific type of chlorophyll in the photosynthetic reaction center.
Schematic showing how photosynthesis works. One of the most important steps in photosynthesis is the splitting of water to release hydrogen and oxygen atoms, forming glucose sugar for the plant to grow and releasing oxygen as a byproduct
Here, energy is used to drive the charge-separation process required for photosynthesis to proceed.
The electron ‘hole’ left behind in the chlorophyll molecule is used to ‘split’ water to oxygen.
Hydrogen ions formed during the water-splitting process are eventually used to convert carbon dioxide to glucose energy, which the plant used to grow.
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