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Trees are growing larger than ever before to help ease global warming – The Telegraph

Trees are getting bigger because of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and are likely to be helping to mitigate global warming more than climate models suggest, scientists believe.

A new study from The Ohio State University has found that tree trunk volume in the US is up to 29 per cent bigger than it was 30 years ago, a finding that is likely to be mirrored elsewhere in the world.

Trees are known to act as a buffer zone against climate change by pulling in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but the latest research shows just how much they have been bulking up on the extra fuel.

“It’s well known that when you put a ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it doesn’t stay up there forever,” said Brent Sohngen, professor of environmental and resource economics at Ohio State.

“A massive amount of it falls into the oceans, while the rest of it is taken up by trees and wetlands and those kinds of areas. Forests are taking carbon out of the atmosphere at a rate of about 13 per cent of our gross emissions.

“While we’re putting billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we’re actually taking much of it out just by letting our forests grow.”

The team used historical data from the US Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis Program to compare how the wood volume of certain forest groups has changed over the past few decades.

The study estimates that between 1970 and 2015, there was a significant increase in the wood volume of trees, which correlates with a distinct rise in carbon emissions.

Elevated carbon levels are likely to have led to the equivalent of an extra tree ring growth for each tree in the 10 different temperate forest groups across the US, suggesting that trees are helping to shield Earth’s ecosystem from the impacts of global warming through their rapid growth, researchers said.

The phenomenon is known as “carbon fertilisation”, whereby an influx of carbon dioxide increases a plant’s rate of photosynthesis, spurring growth.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere mixes almost evenly, so every place on Earth has nearly the same amount, researchers said, suggesting other forests and wooded areas would have seen a similar increase in biomass.

Significant volume increase

The team found that trunk volume had increased by 12.3 per cent in 75-year-old forests and 28.8 per cent in 25-year-old forests.

Some studies from Europe have recorded greater tree heights over time, which researchers have speculated may be due to carbon fertilisation.

Experts had previously speculated that the amount of carbon dioxide that trees would be able to take up would be capped by a lack of other elements needed for photosynthesis such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

However the researchers said that did not appear to be the case. Instead, a lack of carbon dioxide appears to be the most important limiting factor in tree growth.

The team are hoping to repeat the research using global data, but said they hope it would show policymakers and others the value of trees in mitigating climate change.

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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