Smithsonian Announces New Global Forest Carbon Initiative

Public release date: 3-Mar-2008
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Contact: Beth King
703-487-3774, ext.8216

Smithsonian announces Global Forest Carbon Research Initiative

Forests contain nearly 40 percent of the world’s
carbon-more than the atmosphere contains-but too
little is known about forest carbon dynamics to
predict whether anthropogenic global change will
increase or decrease forest carbon pools. Helene
Muller-Landau, staff scientist at the Smithsonian
Tropical Research Institute, announced a major
global research effort to quantify forest carbon
pools and fluxes. She announced the new effort at
the Climate Change in the Americas Symposium,
held Feb. 25-29 at the institute’s headquarters
in Panama.

Researchers from more than 70 institutions
working in a network of 25 forest study sites
currently monitor more than 3 million trees
representing approximately 8,200 species-10
percent of the world’s total tree fauna. This
Global Forest Observatory, which is coordinated
by the Center for Tropical Forest Science at
STRI, was originally set up to understand
biodiversity but has become an ideal tool for
determining the on-the-ground effects of global

Working with partners at 12 of the CTFS sites,
Muller-Landau will assess carbon storage and
movement by quantifying the amount of carbon in
trees, soils, lianas and woody debris;
determining annual carbon flux at different
sites; and seeking explanations for movement of
carbon through forest ecosystems. Finally,
scientists will scale up the study from
individual sites to the larger landscape level by
collaborating with regional forest ecologists and
remote sensing researchers.

Global warming has been driven by the burning of
fossil fuels since the start of the industrial
revolution. Current levels of atmospheric carbon
have not been reached in the last 400,000 years.
While there is evidence from the CTFS forest
plots indicating that some forests are currently
absorbing some of this excess carbon from the
atmosphere, other studies suggest that global
temperature increases are actually slowing tree
growth and, therefore, carbon absorption.
Rainfall patterns and drought frequency are
expected to shift as well-also with unknown
impacts on forest carbon budgets.

If forests absorb more carbon from the atmosphere
than they release, this will slow the rise in
atmospheric carbon dioxide and reduce associated
climate change; in contrast, if forest releases
exceed absorption, atmospheric and climate change
will accelerate.

Initial work from the CTFS plots has already
shown significant variation in the carbon stored
in trees at sites across the network, as well as
significant changes in carbon fluxes through time.

Funding from the HSBC Climate Partnership-in
addition to supporting the carbon initiative-
will support the first-ever landscape-level study
in the tropics to understand the role of forests
in biodiversity conservation and ecosystem
services, as well as carbon storage.


The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute,
headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a unit
of the Smithsonian Institution. The institute
furthers the understanding of tropical nature and
its importance to human welfare, trains students
to conduct research in the tropics and promotes
conservation by increasing public awareness of
the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems.

The Center for Tropical Forest Science of the
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute monitors
some of the most astonishing forests on the
planet. The world’s largest tropical forest
research program, CTFS comprises a global network
of large-scale, long-term studies that together
track the growth and survival of more than 3
million tropical trees.

The Climate Change and Biodiversity in the
Americas Symposium, held at the Smithsonian
Tropical Research Institute in Panama Feb. 25-29,
is sponsored by Environment Canada, the Canadian
International Development Agency, the Convention
on Biological Diversity, IUFRO, IAI, the Heinz
Center, WMO, UNESCO, the Caribbean Climate Change
Centre and the Smithsonian Institution.

The HSBC Climate Partnership is a groundbreaking,
five-year partnership of HSBC, The Climate Group,
Earthwatch Institute, Smithsonian Tropical
Research Institute and the WWF.


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