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Wake Forest research connects to global climate change conference in Bali

December 13, 2007

As representatives from more than 180 countries at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali wrap up two weeks of meetings, a Wake Forest University researcher’s work has contributed to the world conversation on the carbon cycle.

Kenneth Feeley, a post-doctoral researcher in the biology department at Wake Forest, recently published research in the academic journals Ecology Letters and Proceedings of the Royal Society of London suggesting that while tropical trees are miracle workers at taking up carbon during reforestation, “old growth forests as a whole are essentially carbon neutral and may lose as much carbon each year as they take in from the atmosphere.”

As a consequence, “mature tropical forests cannot be counted on to act as carbon sinks,” says Feeley, who studies trees, carbon storage and the carbon cycle and has found that the tropical forests he studies are not increasing their rates of carbon absorption in response to increased levels of carbon dioxide as other scientists have suggested.  In contrast, Feeley and colleagues found that the trees in at least some forests may actually be decreasing in growth possibly due to higher temperatures.  But, Feeley is quick to add that “it is still critically important to preserve tropical forests and plant new trees where they have already been cut down since these trees can store immense amounts of carbon and any deforestation will add to the rise of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere thereby contributing to global warming.”

Feeley looked at growth trends for a total of 500,000 trees in two plots, one in Panama and the other in Malaysia.   His research, which was featured in the Aug. 10 issue of Nature News and the Oct. 27 issue of The New Scientist, has implications for carbon trading programs because his findings can be helpful in figuring out the role tropical forests play in the global carbon budget and in helping to reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  This is one of the issues discussed this week in Bali.

Relatively few studies have measured the response of tropical forests to global climate change, Feeley says.   He currently works with Miles Silman, associate professor of biology at Wake Forest, to study various issues related to trees and climate change.  The two ecologists are also looking at the science behind several projects being discussed at today’s Bali conference regarding the use of carbon trading programs to help reduce rates of deforestation in the Amazon and Andes.  By putting an economic value on some of the services that nature provides, programs such as carbon trading can help to promote conservation while directly benefiting the communities that depend on these lands for their livelihoods.  Feeley and Silman regularly travel to Peru to study the effects of global climate change on forests in the Andes Mountains.

Editor’s Note:  Feeley and Silman are available to discuss their research and to comment on the results of the Bali conference, scheduled to conclude tomorrow.

Press Contacts:

Cheryl Walker
(336) 758-5237

Kevin Cox
(336) 758-5237

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