So-called ‘ghost forests’ are letting out emissions through what scientists are calling ‘tree farts.’
Bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘greenhouse gases,’ the forests in North Carolina are continuing to give off emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide even after the trees have died.
A study conducted by North Carolina State University has found, despite mostly being comprised of dying and decomposing tree trunks known as ‘snags,’ forest areas in the coastal wetlands of the state are still contributing to emissions through what they’re referring to as ‘farts’.
In a press release, lead author Melinda Martinez, a graduate student at the university, said, ‘Even though these standing dead trees are not emitting as much as the soils, they’re still emitting something, and they definitely need to be accounted for.’
She added, ‘Even the smallest fart counts.’
The study, which was published last week in the journal Biogeochemistry, analysed five of these ‘ghost forests’ located in the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in North Carolina between 2018 and 2019. They found that while the soil in these forests was actually responsible for four times higher levels of emissions, the dead and dying trunks still gave off trace amounts.
According to Martinez, the farts happen as the trees ‘act as conduits for soil produced greenhouse gases and can also be sources as they decompose.’
The findings present a more complex picture of the relationship between trees – seen as a major way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as they absorb carbon dioxide – and the environment.
Thanks to climate change, the number of ghost forests are expected to grow as sea levels rise and extreme weather events make areas previously home to living trees inhospitable. According to a previous study also conducted by the university, this process means ‘the forest is both a casualty of climate change, and a contributor.’
It’s a process that has already been observed in recent years as coastal areas face increasingly obvious effects from climate change. Separate research published last month by a team at Duke University used satellite images to track the growth of these ghost forests in North Carolina, focusing in particular on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. They found that between 1985 and 2019, more than 21,000 acres (32 square miles) of ghost forest had formed.
‘The transition from forest to marsh from these disturbances is happening quickly, and it’s leaving behind many dead trees,’ said Martinez, adding, ‘We expect these ghost forests will continue to expand as the climate changes.’
And as the forests expand, so do the farts.
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