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Tropical forest carbon balance in a warmer world: a critical review spanning microbial- to ecosystem-scale processes

December 11, 2012

Tropical forests play a major role in regulating global carbon (C) fluxes and stocks, and even small changes to C cycling in this productive biome could dramatically affect atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations. Temperature is expected to increase over all land surfaces in the future, yet we have a surprisingly poor understanding of how tropical forests will respond to this significant climatic change. Here we present a contemporary synthesis of the existing data and what they suggest about how tropical forests will respond to increasing temperatures. Our goals were to: (i) determine whether there is enough evidence to support the conclusion that increased temperature will affect tropical forest C balance; (ii) if there is sufficient evidence, determine what direction this effect will take; and, (iii) establish what steps should to be taken to resolve the uncertainties surrounding tropical forest responses to increasing temperatures. We approach these questions from a mass-balance perspective and therefore focus primarily on the effects of temperature on inputs and outputs of C, spanning microbial- to ecosystem-scale responses. We found that, while there is the strong potential for temperature to affect processes related to C cycling and storage in tropical forests, a notable lack of data combined with the physical, biological and chemical diversity of the forests themselves make it difficult to resolve this issue with certainty. We suggest a variety of experimental approaches that could help elucidate how tropical forests will respond to warming, including large-scale in situ manipulation experiments, longer term field experiments, the incorporation of a range of scales in the investigation of warming effects (both spatial and temporal), as well as the inclusion of a diversity of tropical forest sites. Finally, we highlight areas of tropical forest research where notably few data are available, including temperature effects on: nutrient cycling, heterotrophic versus autotrophic respiration, thermal acclimation versus substrate limitation of plant and microbial communities, below-ground C allocation, species composition (plant and microbial), and the hydraulic architecture of roots. Whether or not tropical forests will become a source or a sink of C in a warmer world remains highly uncertain. Given the importance of these ecosystems to the global C budget, resolving this uncertainty is a primary research priority.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2012
Title Tropical forest carbon balance in a warmer world: a critical review spanning microbial- to ecosystem-scale processes
DOI 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2012.00232.x
Authors Tana E. Wood, Molly A. Cavaleri, Sasha C. Reed
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Biological Reviews
Series Number
Index ID 70041661
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center