The main motivation for studying Earths global carbon cycle is to enable scientists to predict future levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to Steven C. Wofsy, an environmental scientist at Harvard University, the ability to predict carbon dioxide levels is important if Earth scientists are to answer fundamental questions like how much will global temperatures rise over time, and how will this affect other aspects of Earths climate?
"Are those 2 billion tons of carbon missing permanently, or
temporarily?" Wofsy asks. "Youre at a loss to predict if you
dont know why the carbon is disappearing and if it will stay
In a concerted effort to solve the mystery of the missing carbon, NASA led an interdisciplinary Boreal Ecosystem-Atmosphere Study (BOREAS) from 1994-97 that spanned two Canadian provinces. Wofsy, along with members of 85 other science teams from five nations, participated in the investigation. Their prime suspect was the boreal forest. Named after Boreas, Greek god of the north wind, boreal refers to the mostly evergreen forest that encircles the Earth at high northern latitudesbetween 43°N-65°Noccupying between 16 to 20 million square kilometers of the Earths land surface. Could this cold, mostly coniferous ecosystem be the culprit?
If the boreal forest is a carbon sink, how can it be losing carbon? While it is not possible to extrapolate the measured dynamics of this one old black spruce stand to the entire boreal forest, the BOREAS teams findings raise some troubling questions.
According to Wofsy, most of the carbon in the boreal ecosystem lies deep in the soil, some 40-to-80 centimeters below the surfacebelow the depth to which even large forest fires penetrate. The soil at this depth remains frozen most of the year so it cannot decompose. The decomposersbacteriaare simply dormant. Then, when the soil does thaw toward mid-summer, it is so water-saturated from melting snow that there is not enough oxygen present for the bacteria to thrive. So, when the soil thaws and then begins to dry in late summer, the bacteria wake up and begin furiously decomposing the carbon, thus releasing carbon dioxide.
"We found that whats going on in the soils is more important than what is going on in the trees," Wofsy explains. "We found that the boreal peat is drying and thawing out. This year, the peat never froze all the way down. If that trend continues, the permafrost [or permanently fozen layer of soil from 75-to-100 centimeters beneath the surface] will eventually melt and the soils will release carbon dioxide faster than the trees can absorb it."
Ironically, Wofsy found that the old black spruce site was a carbon sink in 1998the warmest year ever on record, a year you would expect the site to be a strong source of carbon. Wofsy explains what happened: "Usually spring comes at once and dries the soil quickly. But in 1998, spring came early and lasted longer than usual."
Wofsy and his colleagues observed that the soils thawed, but remained cool throughout the spring, thus allowing the trees to "inhale" carbon dioxide for a longer than usual period of time. The net result was that from October 1997-98, the old black spruce site took in 40 grams of carbon per square meter (Wofsy 1999).
"This finding speaks to the importance of understanding the hydrology
(water processes) of the boreal system," Wofsy notes.
Hall agrees, stating that if the boreal soils were to dry, this might increase soil carbon decomposition, but the carbon loss might be offset by the intake of carbon by trees as they grow. "This is why we need [better computer] models that incorporate all of these complicated tradeoffsto accurately predict the effects of climate change on the boreal ecosystem. Precipitation is actually increasing at these latitudes as the climate warms; thus the future may bode a warmer, wetter, and more tropical environment for the boreal ecosystem."
At the old black spruce site in Manitoba, are we already seeing the first sign of the boreal ecosystems transition from a net sink to a net source of carbon? In a paper submitted in January 1997 to Science, Wofsy and his colleagues reported that the boreal carbon budget is roughly in balance, but that the boreal ecosystem demonstrates an extreme sensitivity to climate. The net carbon balance at a site is the difference over a year in the amount of carbon dioxide taken up by plant gowth and the carbon dioxide lost through bacterial decomposition of dead limbs, leaves and soil organic matter. For instance, the old black spruce site consistently takes up 800 grams of carbon per square meter per year. But in 1995 it exhaled 890 grams of carbona net source of 90 grams per square meterwhereas in 1997 it exhaled 790 grams of carbona net source of 10 grams per square meter (Goulden et al. 1998). In short, subtle changes in climate can be the difference between whether the boreal forest is a carbon source or sink; and this difference can show up on a global scale when you consider annual atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
"If you look at the rate of increase in global atmospheric carbon dioxide, its not constant at all," Wofsy observes. "It sometimes varies [from one year to the next] by a factor of 3. Presumably, that gives us a message about the underlying mechanisms for putting away those missing 2 billion tons [of carbon]."
According to Hall, this underscores the importance of the length of the boreal growing season, which also varies from one year to the next. "Climate variation from year-to-year affects the carbon uptake differently than carbon loss," he explains. "Years with warmer springs and falls are better for plant uptake of carbon, but result in increased rates of carbon loss." It is during these latter years that the boreal forest becomes a net source rather than a sink.
Some climatologists argue that a warming trend would simply trigger longer growing seasons and more vigorous plant growth, thereby offsetting the warming trend by enabling plants to absorb more carbon dioxide. Not necessarily so, says Wofsy. "We found no evidence of high rates of carbon accumulation associated with elevated carbon dioxide or climatic warming."
But, Hall counters, Wofsy's black spruce site is old, nutrient poor, and is located near the northern edge of the boreal forest. There may be other regions where the trees are increasingly accumulating carbon due to the lengthening growing season.