The Farting Trees: Study reveals how some trees expel greenhouse gases in the air

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June 13, 2021 3:30 AM

Recent research finds that standing dead trees in coastal wetland forests contribute to global warming

researchers measured emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide from dead pine & bald cypress snags in five ghost forests on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in North carolinaResearchers measured emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide from dead pine & bald cypress snags in five ghost forests on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in North carolina

There’s a surprising amount of evidence related to animal fart and climate change. Take, for instance, cows. One cow can produce up to 200 kg methane a year, contributing to a sizeable portion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agriculture is responsible for 10-12% of greenhouse gas emissions, with meat, poultry and dairy farming producing nearly three quarters of it, says The World Economic Forum. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock—including cows, pigs, sheep and other animals—are responsible for about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cows, though, are the primary offenders—each animal releases 30-50 gallons a day on average. With an estimated 1.3-1.5 billion cows on the planet, one can only wonder how much methane they produce.

But cows are not to be solely blamed for emitting the most methane. It also comes from trees. Yes, you read that right. Trees, too, contribute to global warming, expelling greenhouse gases into the air. Dead trees destroyed by rising sea levels emit carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

A new study from North Carolina State University finds that greenhouse gas emissions—colloquially called ‘tree farts’—from standing dead trees in coastal wetland forests need to be accounted for when assessing the environmental impact of so-called ‘ghost forests’. The study, recently published in the journal Biogeochemistry, compared the quantity and type of emissions from dead tree snags to emissions from the soil. While snags did not release as much as soil, they did increase GHG emissions of the overall ecosystem by about 25%. The findings show that snags are important for understanding the total environmental impact of the spread of dead trees in coastal wetlands (known as ghost forests) on GHG emissions.

“Even though these standing dead trees are not emitting as much as the soils, they’re still emitting something, and they definitely need to be accounted for,” said the study’s lead author Melinda Martinez, a graduate student in forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University. “Even the smallest fart counts.”

In the study, researchers measured emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide from dead pine and bald cypress snags in five ghost forests on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in North Carolina, where researchers have been tracking the spread of ghost forests due to sea-level rise. “The transition from forest to marsh from these disturbances is happening quickly, and it’s leaving behind many dead trees,” Martinez said. “We expect these ghost forests will continue to expand as the climate changes.”

Such emission might prove to be a threat to an overall ecological system as it wipes out the forested wetlands. Surprisingly, the dead greens cannot survive the environment and as a result cause loss to biodiversity while at the same time contributing to climate change.

It’s well known that trees create an apt environment for many plant and animal species, improve biodiversity conservation and human well-being. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that there seems to be a dramatic rise in the number of people concerned about nature loss as ‘eco-wakening’ grips the globe. New global research, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and commissioned by the WWF in May this year, shows that public interest in, and concern for, nature has risen markedly (16%) in the past five years (2016-2020) and continues to grow during the pandemic. People in developing economies—Asian countries such as Indonesia and India—are increasingly aware of the planetary crisis, and this is affecting their behaviour. Digital activism is at play with 65% increase in the number of Twitter mentions, amplifying concern for nature worldwide—mentions of nature and biodiversity increased from 30 million to 50 million in the last four years.

“Concern over the impact we are having on the natural world is growing particularly in emerging markets, where people are feeling more acutely the impacts of deforestation, unsustainable fishing, species extinction and the decline of ecosystems,” says Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, adding that society is supporting a transformation of the economic and development model towards one that finally values nature for the crucial services it provides to economy, well-being, health and security. “This is a truly historic ‘eco-wakening’ and the chance to rebalance our relationship with the planet,” he says.

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