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NEWS
Study Finds Structurally Complex Forests Better At Carbon Sequestration
September 18, 2019

Carbon sequestration continues to be a hot topic for a myriad of groups including scientists, the forestry industry, and environmentalists alike. Today, carbon dioxide (CO2) is naturally captured from the atmosphere through biological, chemical or physical processes. Now, according to information provided by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), researchers have found that forests in the eastern United States that are structurally complex sequester more carbon.

Anticipated to be published in the journal Ecology, the study, “High Rates of Primary Production in Structurally Complex Forests,” demonstrates for the first time that a forest’s structural complexity is a better predictor of carbon sequestration potential than tree species diversity.

“Carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, is taken up by trees through the process of photosynthesis and some of that ‘fixed’ carbon is allocated to wood,” according to Chris Gough, Ph.D., corresponding author on the study and an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU. “Our study shows that more complex forests are better at taking up and sequestering carbon in wood and, in doing so, they leave less carbon dioxide in the air. In other words, forests that are structurally variable and contain multiple layers of leaves outperform structurally simple forests with a single concentrated band of vegetation.”

To conduct the study, the researchers used a combination of their own data, as well as data from the National Science Foundation-funded National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). VCU biology post-doctoral scholar Jeff Atkins, Ph.D., led field data collection with researchers from the University of Connecticut and Purdue University serving as collaborators and co-authors.

“Many of the ecological indicators of forest growth and carbon sequestration fail to explicitly account for complexity,” noted Prof. Gough. “We wanted to test whether more novel indicators of structural complexity are superior predictors of carbon sequestration in wood. We also wanted to know whether these predictors extend to a number of different forest types residing in various parts of the eastern half of U.S., from Florida to New Hampshire to Wisconsin.”

Building on previous research supported by the National Science Foundation, the new study suggests that using laser-based technology (lidar) to map forest structure could predict the potential of forests to sequester carbon in biomass better than conventional approaches characterizing biodiversity and leaf quantity.

“This could be a major advance because we can likely use aircraft and, just in the last year, satellite data to collect the data needed to predict carbon sequestration from structural complexity,” Prof. Gough explained. “If we can estimate structural complexity from satellites in the future, then it may be possible to greatly improve our capacity to estimate and predict global forest carbon sequestration.”

While the study reports that structural complexity outperformed species diversity measures as predictors of carbon sequestration, the researchers noted that diversity is also important as one of many components that determine the structural complexity of a forest.

“We think structural complexity measures are powerful because they integrate multiple features of a forest that are critical to carbon sequestration,” Prof. Gough emphasized. “It takes tree diversity to produce a variety of leaf and plant shapes and, additionally, a critical quantity of leaves to supply the building blocks required to assemble a structurally complex forest capable of sequestering lots of carbon.”


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