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Do all tropical forests follow the same rules?

Forests everywhere basically do the same thing. Their trees grow, reproduce and die, creating the infrastructure and cycling the raw materials that sustain biodiversity from microscopic fungi to human societies. Understanding the "rules" that govern forest function is essential to predicting how forests will respond to climate change.

Are the rules the same in forests everywhere? This is a question STRI staff scientist Helene Muller-Landau asks as she looks at long-term trends in tropical forest plots across the globe that form part of the Smithsonian's ForestGEO network of forest dynamics plots. Are forests in Central America, Africa and Asia responding similarly to change?

It depends. CTFS plots in Congo, Colombia and Malaysia have shown significant increases in biomass, while other old-growth forest plots have shown insignificant increases or decreases. Slow-growing, better-surviving species increased significantly in abundance at these plots and at one in the Philippines, while fast-growing species increased significantly at a Sri Lanka plot.

"Are old-growth tropical forests taking up carbon or losing carbon overall? That’s still being debated," says Helene. "What’s the impact of higher concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and rising temperatures on tropical forests? We can be pretty sure species and functional composition will shift, as species are unequally affected. But how exactly will that work, and how will forest structure and biomass change?"

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Asner Wright Hall Muller Winter Potvin
Turner Detto Hubell Rubinoff Davies