Blog: Trace Gas Dynamics in Tropical Forests

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By Bertie Welch. 18th December 2013.

After carbon dioxide, methane is the second most important greenhouse gas, yet how much is produced and transferred to the atmosphere by tropical rainforests is not fully understood, because much of the research in the tropics focuses on rice paddies and wetlands, as these are significant sources of anthropogenic methane. Rice et al. (2010) suggest that globally, hardwood trees could account for emissions of ~60 Tg Ch4 yr-1.

These potentially significant methane emissions are a result of trees allowing the methane produced in deeper, anaerobic soils to bypass the methanotrophs and nitrifying bacteria in the aerobic upper soils (Milich, 1999). We know from temperate forest and mesocosm studies that trees can act as conduits for soil methane into the atmosphere.  Trees can adapt to cope with flooding-induced soil anoxia in a variety of ways: hypertrophied lenticels, adventitious roots and enlarged aerenchyma (Havens, 1994; Kozlowksi, 1997).  Studies of temperate trees such as alders have shown that they use all the above adaptations when in waterlogged soils. This results in increased methane fluxes from the trees as there is increased surface area for emission and easier transmission from soil to atmosphere (Rusch and Rennenberg, 1998; Gauci et al., 2010).

Pangala et al. (2013) showed that in a tropical peat forest in Borneo, tree stems were responsible for 60-80% of total ecosystem methane fluxes, demonstrating that trees can be a significant source of emissions. This new study in lowland evergreen tropical rainforest in Panama aims to expand on this work and investigate the extent of tree stem emissions in an area of relatively free draining soils on a fortnightly basis for 5 months, covering the dry to wet season transition starting March 2014.

There is a second aspect to the study – we don’t know how trace greenhouse gas biosphere-atmosphere exchange will be affected by an atmosphere that is being enriched with CO2. It is thought that rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations will increase primary productivity in rainforests resulting in greater amounts of litterfall. The fieldwork will be done at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama, on plots that are part of an ongoing litter manipulation experiment meant to simulate elevated atmospheric CO2. There are 15 plots in total: 5 control, 5 with litter removed and 5 with litter added. Sayer et al. (2011) discovered soil respiration to be significantly higher in the litter addition plots compared to the control and litter removal plots. We hypothesise that due to increased litter input (and therefore more source carbon for methanogenesis) methane emissions will be greatest in the addition plots.

Gauci, V., Gowing, D.J.G., Hornibrook, E.R.C., Davis, J.M. & Dise, N.B. (2010) Woody stem methane emission in mature wetland alder trees. Atmospheric Environment, 44, 2157-2160.

Havens, K.J. (1994) The formation of hypertrophied lenticels, adventitious water roots, and an oxidized rhizosphere by Acer rubrum seedlings over time along a hydrologic gradient. Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Gloucester Point, Va.

Kozlowski, T.T. (1997) Responses of woody plants to flooding and salinity. Tree Physiology, Monograph No. 1, 29.

Milich, L. (1999) The role of methane in global warming: where might mitigation strategies be focused. Global Environmental Change, 9, 179-201.

Pangala, S.R., Moore, S., Hornibrook, E.R.C. & Gauci, V. (2013) Trees are major conduits for methane egress from tropical forested wetlands. New Phytologist, 197, 524-531.

Rice, A.L., Butenhoff, C.L., Shearer, M.J., Teama, D., Rosenstiel, T.N. & Khalil, M.A.K. (2010) Emissions of anaerobically produced methane by trees. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L03807.

Rusch, H. & Rennenberg, H. (1998) Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa (L.) Gaertn.) trees mediate methane and nitrous oxide emission from the soil to the atmosphere. Plant and Soil, 201, 1-7.

Sayer, E.J., Heard, M.S., Grant, H.K., Marthews, T.R. & Tanner, E.V.J. (2011) Soil carbon release enhanced by increased tropical forest litterfall. Nature Climate Change, 1, 304-307.

Image: Forest of Taman Negara National Park by Vladimir Yu. Arkhipov, Arkhivov under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

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