New research shows that trees that are affected by droughts take two to four years to recover, hindering their ability to absorb harmful carbon dioxide from the air. The data concludes that areas with frequent droughts will see higher amounts of harmful chemicals such as carbon dioxide in the surrounding atmosphere.
Until recently, scientists assumed trees and other plant life would be able to quickly recover after a drought. The new study, which was conducted by Northern Arizona University researchers, shows that these assumptions are incorrect. By examining tree ring data, the researchers found that many trees take a while to return to their normal growing pattern after a long drought.
Trees are the longest-living organisms on Earth. Each year, trees are responsible for absorbing about one quarter of the carbon dioxide that is emitted by humans. When a tree’s growth is stunted, it loses much of its ability to photosynthesize, limiting the tree’s ability to store the harmful gas.
“This really matters because future droughts are expected to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change,” says William Anderegg in a study by Princeton University. Anderegg goes on to say that the frequent droughts can make it impossible for trees to recover, greatly limiting their ability to absorb the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The study was done on trees in a semi-arid ecosystem, which is only one type of tree. More research is being planned for other species of trees, such as trees found in tropical areas. However, Anderegg predicts that droughts will also have lasting effects on these types of trees as well.
Scientists suggest that the effect that droughts have on tree recovery can reduce the amount of carbon storage capacity in certain ecosystems by over 1.6 metric gigatons over the next century. This information has not yet been factored into current climate model predictions, suggesting that global warming researchers may have underestimated the severity of climate change in the future.