06 August 2019

How much carbon dioxide can tropical forests absorb?

Current climate models suggest that trees will continue to remove manmade greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere, making it possible to stay within the targets set by the Paris Agreement. A study by an international team including researchers from IIASA however indicates that this uptake capacity could be strongly limited by soil phosphorus availability.

© Ulf Huebner | Dreamstime.com

© Ulf Huebner | Dreamstime.com

Trees absorb CO2 through their leaves and turn greenhouse gases into oxygen and biomass. According to estimates by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Amazon rainforest in particular, absorbs around a quarter of the CO2 that is released each year due to fossil fuel combustion. Today’s global climate models assume that this capacity will be maintained in the future due to the so-called CO2 fertilization effect, which proposes that rising levels of CO2 promote vegetation growth by accelerating the rate of photosynthesis that plants use to produce biomass. Deforestation, agricultural expansion, and rising temperatures are however pushing the storage capacity of the Amazon forest to its limit, and according to researchers, it is unclear how long it will remain a carbon sink. An international team including researchers from IIASA explored this question using data from the first tropical Free Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) experiment conducted in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

The AmazonFACE project includes a unique experimental technical set-up at a study site located approximately 70 kilometers north of Manaus, Brazil, in which the ambient CO2 concentration is artificially increased, thus enabling a realistic investigation of how future CO2 concentrations will affect the ecosystem. Researchers monitor how the trees are growing and the leaves are developing aboveground, while also tracking root growth and what is happening in the soil below ground. In their paper published in Nature Geoscience, the authors applied a number of ecosystem models to investigate the extent to which soil nutrient supply might limit the production of biomass in tropical forests.

“To date, nobody has investigated this connection in depth,” explains Katrin Fleischer, a researcher based at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and lead author of the study. “Most ecosystem models that simulate the future development of ecosystems have been developed for temperate latitudes, where there is generally enough phosphorus. In many parts of the Amazon, however, this element is scarce – the ecosystem is several million years old, and the soil is correspondingly leached of nutrients.”

The researchers used 14 different ecosystem models to explore how the rainforest responds to an increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. These models were then used to simulate biomass production for the next 15 years – first, for the current CO2 concentration of 400 ppm, and in a second scenario, for an increased concentration of 600 ppm.

The results indicate that trees indeed absorb additional CO2 and convert it to plant biomass, but only if plenty of phosphorus is available. If the supply is insufficient, the CO2 fertilization effect decreases substantially. The different models, which take into account various factors, predict a possible reduction of additional CO2 uptake by an average of 50%, while some predict a reduction of up to 100% depending on the scenario.

According to the researchers, this would indicate that the rainforest could already be at its limit to absorb manmade CO2 emissions. If this scenario proves true, the Earth’s climate would heat up much faster than previously assumed.

“Most models try to reduce the complexity of the system and therefore could be missing important ecosystem processes, which might include crucial feedbacks and thus result in an overestimation of the CO2-fertilization effect,” says Florian Hofhansl, a postdoctoral researcher at IIASA and one of the study co-authors. “The AmazonFACE experiment will provide us with new insights for model development, which should enable us to make more reliable predictions and thus improve future projections.”

The authors note that how the ecosystem reacts – whether trees will be capable of getting additional phosphorus from the soil through enzymatic processes or by forming more roots and symbiotic interactions that can provide scarce nutrients – must be further investigated. One thing is however certain, tropical rainforests are not an infinite CO2 sink and the Amazon forest reservoir must be preserved.

Click on the video link below for a closer look at The Amazon FACE project: Exploring the impact of climate change on the Amazon forest


Fleischer K, Rammig A, De Kauwe M, Walker A, Domingues T, Fuchslueger L, Garcia S, Goll D, et al. (2019). Amazon forest response to CO2 fertilization dependent on plant phosphorus acquisition. Nature Geoscience DOI: 10.1038/s41561-019-0404-9ID [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16021]

Adapted from a press release originally sent out by the Technical University of Munich.

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Last edited: 07 August 2019


Florian Hofhansl

Research Scholar Novel Data Ecosystems for Sustainability Research Group - Advancing Systems Analysis Program

Research Scholar Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation Research Group - Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program


Ansa Heyl

Communications Manager and Deputy Head of Communications and External Relations Communications and External Relations Department

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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