Boreal Forests Store Carbon, But Maybe Not For Much Longer

As wildfires become more frequent, the boreal forest could start releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbs.

Right now, the boreal forest absorbs and stores more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases, helping to cool the climate while supplying the air with oxygen.

But climate change is accelerating. With that comes warmer, dryer temperatures, which leads to more fires in the boreal forest. More fires in the forest lead to more carbon release into the atmosphere. 

It’s not just because the trees are burning. Most of the carbon in the boreal forest is stored in the soil — in the deep layer of organic material that has fallen off of trees and plants over thousands of years. In some places, it can be meters deep. This soil holds about 50% of all the carbon in the world.

Brendan Rogers, a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Centre in Massachusetts is trying to find out how much of this carbon is going up in smoke by studying unburned forests and comparing them to burned forests, "It's a massive amount of stuff — carbon that was in the soil and it's now in the atmosphere."

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As forest fires become more frequent and intense, more of the soil is burning away. If that keeps happening, the carbon that’s been stored for thousands of years will be released into the atmosphere, speeding up the rate of global climate change further. One day, the boreal forest could become a carbon source, rather than a carbon sink.

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