Forests recovering from logging still act as a source of carbon

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Image: Zoe G Davies. Digger within logging gap in the Bornean rainforest

Tropical forests recovering from logging are sources of carbon for decades afterwards, contrary to previous assumptions, finds a new study.

Tropical forests that are recovering from having trees removed were thought to be carbon absorbers, as the surviving and new trees grow quickly after the disturbance. A new study, involving researchers from the University of Oxford, turns this on its head, showing that the carbon released by soil and rotting wood outpaces the carbon absorbed by new growth.

The researchers say the result highlights the need for logging practices that minimise collateral damage to improve the sustainability of the industry. The study, which monitored carbon in forests in Malaysian Borneo as part of the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystem (SAFE) Project, is published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Co-author Dr Terhi Riutta, formerly at the University of Oxford and now at the University of Exeter, said: "A lot of the carbon released in recovering forests is from collateral damage - trees that have died as a result of damage during the logging operations left to rot, and from disturbed soil. Logged forests still have value - we know they have a unique biodiversity - so making sure they are also not releasing extra carbon through better logging practices will boost their sustainability."

Dr Riutta was joined in the research work by former DPhil student Walter Huaraca Huasco and by Prof Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science , both from the University of Oxford.

Prof Yadvinder Malhi, who leads the Ecosystems Research Programme at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, said: "This work shows the importance of considering the whole ecosystem. Most studies of the carbon balance of logged forests consider only the biomass of the remaining trees, which is usually increasing over time and storing carbon. In this study we looked at the whole ecosystem and found that dead wood and soils are still releasing carbon decades after the logging, such that logged forest landscapes are persistent carbon sources, and not the carbon sinks that we had previously imagined."

Interestingly whilst this research shows logging is worse for carbon emissions than previously thought, another recent study led by the University of Oxford found that logging is better for biodiversity than we previously thought.

Prof Malhi added: "This new paper comes in the wake of our recent study in Nature based on the same field study site. That study showed that that logging did not have the expected negative effect on biodiversity and ecological vibrancy - in fact the ecological vibrancy greatly increased after logging. This new study shows that logging has worse impacts on carbon emission that expects. Together the two papers show how carbon and biodiversity stories are not always aligned, and in this case point in opposite directions."

Lead author Maria Mills, from the University of Leicester (who began the work at Imperial), said: "Our results show that for the tropical forest we studied, logged areas are a source of carbon even a decade after logging has occurred. This means we need to reassess their role in global carbon budgets - we can no longer apply the blanket assumption that they are carbon sinks."

Many previous studies of recovering forests have focused on measuring tree growth to estimate the amount of carbon taken from the atmosphere. The new study also measured how much carbon was coming from the ground (soil and dead wood) to calculate the carbon budget from the incoming and outgoing carbon flows for logged and unlogged (old-growth) forest. The study paints a detailed description of the full carbon cycle of tropical forests, using an approach that was pioneered at Oxford and has been applied at dozens of locations across the tropics through the Oxford-led Global Ecosystems Monitoring network. (Malhi et al 2021).

Logged forest plots in the study had experienced logging at different stages over the prior few decades. The measurements were taken between 2011 and 2017.

To measure the carbon released from the ground, researchers used a portable carbon dioxide monitor to test patches of ground and pieces of deadwood in several plots monthly for several years. The team had also set up a 52-metre-tall tower above the forest canopy to continuously measure the 'flux' of carbon into and out of the forest to see whether it was a net source or sink of carbon.

They found that unlogged forested areas are generally carbon neutral, but that moderately and heavily logged tropical forest areas are a carbon source. They estimate an average carbon source of 1.75 +/- 0.94 tonnes of carbon per hectare within moderately logged plots and 5.23 +/- 1.23 tonnes of carbon per hectare in severely degraded plots, with emissions continuing at these rates for at least one decade after logging.

Co-author Professor Rob Ewers, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: "The measurements from the tower show us whether the forest area is a source or a sink of carbon, and the soil monitoring tells us why this is. From these measurements, we know logged forests are still a source of carbon up to a decade after they have been logged, and that this primarily comes from organic matter in the soil or from rotting wood."

The team say carbon monitoring should be conducted in other forests in different regions to build a more accurate picture of how logged forests contribute to global carbon budgets.