Contrary to long-held misconceptions, trees never stop growing during their lifespans, a new study has found.
In fact, as they age, their growth accelerates, even after they’ve reached massive sizes. This means that older trees play a substantial and disproportionate role in the Earth’s carbon cycle — one of the cycles that makes Earth capable of sustaining life.
The groundbreaking findings are in a new study co-authored by UNL biologist Sabrina Russo and published Jan. 15 in Nature.
Researchers analyzed the compiled biomass growth measurements of 673,046 trees belonging to 403 species from various temperate and tropical regions across six continents.
They concluded that for most tree species, mass growth rate continues to increase with their size, with some species’ largest trees growing by a mass equivalent to a mid-sized tree in a single year.
“Looking at data from whole forests — that is, all trees in a forest considered together as a unit — it is often found that forest productivity declines with the age of the forest, but that does not mean that the growth of the oldest trees declines,” said Russo, a forest ecologist in the School of Biological Sciences. “What turns out to be key to understanding tree growth is to examine the growth pattern of each individual, not just the forest stand as a whole.”
In addition to discovering this property of tree growth, the conclusions also contribute to understanding the global carbon cycle because trees, like all plants, take up carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in their biomass.
“About 50 percent of a tree’s wood is carbon, so a rapidly growing, large, old tree can remove huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, through an enormous photosynthetic flux — far more than a younger, smaller tree can,” Russo said.
“While they are alive, these giant elders of the forest play a disproportionately important role in a forest’s carbon dynamics.”
While 38 researchers from 29 institutions collaborated on the study, Russo was instrumental in the research. She contributed to development of the data analysis methods, as well as the analysis and interpretation of the results.
Russo’s principal research site in Lambir Hills National Park in Malaysia on the island of Borneo also lent data to the study for 76 Southeast Asian tree species.
The study, “Rate of tree carbon accumulation increases continuously with tree size,” is available at http://www.nature.com.
In addition to Russo, the paper was authored by Nathan Stephenson and Adrian Das of the U.S. Geological Survey, Richard Condit of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and 34 other researchers.