Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
[ E-mail ]
21-Nov-2003

Contact: Science Press Package
scipak@aaas.org
202-346-6440
American Association for the Advancement of Science

A forest's appetite for carbon



The length of root life is important. It helps determine the amount of carbon that the forests pull out of the atmosphere (through photosynthesis) and deposit into long-term storage. [Image courtesy of Roser Matamala and Susan Kirt]

Full size image available here

While you're outside diving into piles of fallen leaves, imagine piles of dead roots underground. A group of scientists did more that just picture it. They dug into the dirt in search of dead roots with a specific question in mind:

Do the tiny roots from different kinds of trees live for the same length of time?

These root-searching scientists say no. Instead, they report that tiny pine-tree roots live longer than the itsy-bitsy roots from sweetgum trees. Roser Matamala of the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, IL, and her colleagues describe this discovery in the 21 November issue of the journal Science.



If long-lived roots are found in other forests, then the world’s trees might not be storing carbon in the soil as quickly as scientists have estimated. [Image courtesy of Roser Matamala and Susan Kirt]

Full size image available here

In the past, other scientists have predicted a different answer--suggesting that most of the smallest tree roots from all kinds of trees die and get replaced by a new set every year.

The length of root life is important. It helps determine the amount of carbon that the forests pull out of the atmosphere (through photosynthesis) and deposit into long-term storage. The level of carbon in the air, especially in the form of carbon dioxide, impacts the process of global warming.

If long-lived roots are found in other forests, then the world's trees might not be storing carbon in the soil as quickly as scientists have estimated.

Realizing that some forests may not be soaking up carbon as fast as we thought highlights the small things that kids can do to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Turning off lights, recycling paper, and walking instead of driving are simple ways to limit the carbon you add to the atmosphere, says Matamala.

As a kid, she said that she didn't think about protecting the environment. Now she is more careful.

"It's easier for us to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we add to the air than it is for forests to pull extra carbon out," says Matamala, who will be teaching these same lessons to her four month old baby when she is old enough to understand.

###

Back to Science for kids

Science is published by AAAS, the non-profit science society.