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Tropical forests have flipped from sponges to sources of carbon dioxide

A closer look at the world’s trees reveals a loss of density in the tropics

2:00pm, September 28, 2017
degraded forest in Bolivia

DAMAGED FOREST Severely degraded forests, such as this one in Bolivia, are helping convert the “lungs of the planet” into carbon emitters.

The world’s tropical forests are exhaling — and it’s not a sigh of relief. Instead of soaking up climate-warming gases on balance, these so-called “lungs of the planet” are beginning to release them.

A new study based on analyses of satellite imagery of tropical Asia, Africa and the Americas suggests that tropical forests contribute more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than they remove. Much of that carbon contribution is due to deforestation, the conversion of forests to urban spaces such as farms or roads. But more than two-thirds comes from a less visible source: a decline in the number and diversity of trees in remaining forests, researchers report online September 28 in Science.

Tropical forests are a bulwark against rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, taking up carbon and storing it as stems, leaves and roots. Deforestation’s effect is

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