Our Green Lungs are Coughing: Trees Struggle to Breathe in a Warming World

By: | February 28th, 2024

Image courtesy Wikimedia

Earth’s Natural Heroes Under Strain

Forests have long been hailed as Earth’s natural heroes, silently absorbing harmful carbon dioxide and mitigating the effects of climate change. However, a recent study throws a curveball at this comforting narrative, revealing that trees in warmer, drier regions are struggling to “breathe” and store CO2 effectively. This poses a significant challenge to our reliance on forests as a key climate solution.

A Tree’s Response to Climate Stress

The culprit behind this struggle is photorespiration, a process analogous to human coughing. Normally, trees perform photosynthesis, taking in CO2 and using it to build sugars for growth, effectively locking away carbon. However, under stress from rising temperatures and limited water, the photorespiration process kicks in, causing trees to release CO2 back into the atmosphere instead.

Penn State researchers discovered that in warmer climates with water scarcity, trees may double their photorespiration rates, potentially increasing CO2 levels. This could worsen the global warming issue, contradicting the intended role of trees in mitigating climate change.

Rethinking Climate Solutions:

This finding disrupts our climate mitigation plans, which heavily depend on forests as carbon sinks. It highlights the complexity of Earth’s interconnected systems, revealing that solutions like tree planting may not be as straightforward as initially believed.

Adapting forest management is crucial. Planting trees in less affected areas and diversifying species can enhance resilience to changing conditions.

Investing in additional research is imperative to comprehend the diverse impacts of climate change on various tree species and ecosystems. This understanding is essential for devising effective adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Nidhi Goyal

Nidhi is a gold medalist Post Graduate in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

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