For the past 10 years, the Weizmann Institute has been operating a research station in the semi-arid Yatir Forest, a pine forest at the edge of the Negev Desert. This station is part of a world-wide project composed of over 400 stations, called FLUXNET, which investigates the relationship between forests, the atmosphere, and climate around the globe.
The contribution of the Yatir station, says Prof. Dan Yakir of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Energy Research, is unique as it “is one of very few in the semi-arid zone, which covers over 17% of the Earth’s land surface, and it has the longest record of the processes taking place in semi-arid forests.”
Forests counteract the greenhouse effect by removing heat-trapping CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in living trees. Over the years of measurement, Prof. Yakir’s group has found that the semi-arid forest, even though it’s not as luxuriant as the temperate forests farther north, is a surprisingly good carbon sink – better than most European pine forests and about on par with the global average. This was unexpected news for a forest sitting at the edge of a desert, and it indicated that there is real hope for the more temperate forests if things heat up under future global climate change scenarios.
But forests do more than just store CO2, and Prof. Yakir, together with Dr. Eyal Rotenberg, decided to look at the larger picture – the total energy budget of a semi-arid forest. The first hint they had that other processes might be counteracting the cooling effect of CO2 uptake came when they compared the forest’s albedo – how much sunlight is reflected from its surface back into space – with that of the nearby open shrub land. They found that the dark-colored forest canopy had a much lower albedo, absorbing quite a bit more of the sun’s energy than the pale, reflective surface of surrounding areas. In a cloudless environment with high levels of solar radiation, albedo becomes an important factor in surface heating.
Next, the researchers looked at the mechanisms for “air conditioning” within the forest itself. To cool down, trees in wetter areas of the globe use water-cooled systems: They open pores in their leaves and simply let some of the water evaporate, drawing heat away in the process. But the semi-arid pine forest, with its limited water supply, is not built for evaporation. The scientists found that it uses an alternative, efficient, air-cooling system instead. As semi-arid forests are not as dense as their temperate counterparts, the air in the open spaces between the trees comes into contact with a large surface area, and heat can be easily transferred from the leaves to the air currents. This semi-arid air cooling system is quite efficient at cooling the treetops, and this cooling, in turn, leads to a reduction in infrared (thermal) radiation out into space. In other words, while the semi-arid forest can cool itself well enough to survive and take up carbon, it both absorbs more solar radiation energy (through the albedo effect) and retains more of this energy (by suppressing the emission of infrared radiation). Together, these effects turned out to be stronger than the scientists had expected. “Although the numbers vary with location and conditions,” says Prof. Yakir, “we now know it will take decades of forest growth before the ‘cooling’ CO2 sequestration can overtake these opposing ‘warming’ processes.”
Prof. Yakir and Dr. Rotenberg then asked one more question: If planting semi-arid forests can in fact lead to warming over a good part of the forests’ life cycles, what happens when the opposite process – desertification – takes place? By applying what they had learned to existing data on areas that have turned to desert, they found that desertification, instead of hastening global warming, as is commonly thought, has actually mitigated it, at least in the short term. By reflecting sunlight and releasing infrared radiation, desertification of semi-arid lands over the past 35 years has slowed down global warming by as much as 20%, compared with the expected effect of the CO2 rise over the same period. And in a world in which desertification is continuing at a rate of about six million hectares a year, that news might have a significant effect on how we estimate the rates and magnitude of climate change. Says Prof. Yakir, “Overall, forests remain hugely important climate stabilizers, not to mention the other ecological services they provide, but there are tradeoffs, such as those between carbon sequestration and surface radiation budgets, and we need to take these into consideration when predicting the future.”
Prof. Dan Yakir’s research is supported by the Avron-Wilstaetter Minerva Center for Research in Photosynthesis; the Sussman Family Center for the Study of Environmental Sciences; the Angel Faivovich Foundation for Ecological Research; and the Cathy Wills and Robert Lewis Program in Environmental Science.
The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world’s top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to 2,600 scientists, students, technicians, and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials, and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.
Jennifer Manning | Newswise Science News
UCI and NASA document accelerated glacier melting in West Antarctica
26.10.2016 | University of California - Irvine
Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere
25.10.2016 | American Geophysical Union
Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.
This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...
Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion
Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...
Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.
"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...
In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.
A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...
By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.
"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...
14.10.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
12.10.2016 | Event News
27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences
27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy
27.10.2016 | Life Sciences