Rainforests and their role as carbon sinks amidst the climate crisis have been a topic of conversation for a while now. Around the mid-80s, rainforest conservation started to build as a mass movement, as people came to realize the importance of these lush jungles on the future of our existence as a species. Plants pull in carbon dioxide, cycle it through, and release oxygen that we then breathe in. With the sheer volume of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere, we need trees to counteract and slow down the climate crisis. However, it seems that not all trees are created equal.
A new study released in Science reviewed the trees in the Panama Rainforest, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world and the second largest rainforest in the Americas after the Amazon. The Chagres National Park alone contains over 1,185 species of plants. The researchers analyzed forty years of data to see how 300 different species of trees played their role in the carbon cycle.
The species were distinguished by two categories: height and lifespan, which directly correlate with the species’ ability to store and cycle through carbon. The results show that trees that mature quickly are not as effective at processing carbon, while the trees that keep growing for a long time and reach heights of over 100 feet make up the majority of the biomass of the rainforest and contribute much more to the rainforest’s carbon sink than other species. The only downfall is that these trees don’t effectively reproduce. The researchers believe that rather than spending their energy reproducing, they spend it on growing. This makes it incredibly important to preserve these trees.
The study revealed that one particular type of tree absorbs more carbon more than any other.
All of us have that friend who has posted a picture standing under a ginormous tree (or maybe you’re lucky enough to be that friend). These gentle and ancient giants tower almost as high as some skyscrapers, somehow rising above other plants in the dense and hugely competitive forest. In the Panama Rainforest, the particular species able to get this tall are the Cavanillesia platanifolia, nicknamed “long-lived pioneers” by the researchers.
“People have been arguing about whether these long-lived pioneers contribute much to carbon storage over the long term,” said Caroline Farrior, one of the senior authors and a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “We were surprised to find that they do.”
This finding has significant implications in the ongoing debate about climate crisis strategy. Planting new trees to offset carbon may not be as effective as protecting existing, mature forests. Razing ecosystems and planting monoculture tree farms in their place not only destroys biodiversity, but also has questionable benefits for climate crisis. On an individual level, you might consider whether you should support businesses and organizations that focus on planting new trees, over those that work to conserve existing rainforests.
Like trees in general, the fate of the Cavanillesia platanifolia is unclear at best. Around the world, an average of 28 million hectares of trees are cut down every year. That’s about a football field of forest lost every second of every day. These trees are being cleared to make way for animal agriculture and palm oil and other mass product agriculture methods. To avoid the climate tipping point, we have to save the long-live pioneers and stop the deforestation of our forests. We’ve been driving species to extinction for years; if we don’t make a change, we’ll soon drive ourselves into extinction too.
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Photo: Conscious Design on Unsplash