Trees Act As Global Thermostat

They keep the planet from getting too hot or cold

Mountain trees could regulate global temperatures.     Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Tree roots in mountains might play a crucial role in regulating long-term global temperatures, according to new research published in Geophysical Research Letters. In fact, through a complex sequence of steps, mountain trees could work as a thermostat of sorts for our planet.

Here's how it works: The thickness of leaf and soil layers on forest floors varies depending on temperature. This in turn affects how quickly tree roots grow; in warmer climates, tree roots commonly extend into the soil's mineral layer, breaking down rocks. Scientists call this process weathering, and as the rocks break down, they release components that bind with carbon dioxide, removing the gas from the atmosphere and cooling the planet.

This cycle prevents the planet from cataclysmic overheating or cooling, the paper suggests.

Scientists measured data from warm Amazonian lowland forests as well as trees in the cool Andes mountains. By comparing the root growth, temperature, humidity, rainfall, and soil moisture of these Peruvian trees over several years, the researchers were able to calculate the rates at which basalt and granite rocks broke down.

The paper also integrated data from ancient Indian volcanic eruptions and the formation of the Himalayas, concluding that mountainous regions specifically help regulate temperature because they contain high volumes of volcanic rock, which is highly reactive to weathering.

A simple lesson lies beneath these new findings: As humans infringe on mountainous forests, they could be reducing the effectiveness of a natural climate regulator. Of course, this study comes hot on the heels of recent research suggesting that a lack of trees can prove fatal for humans and that elderly forests disproportionately fight atmospheric greenhouse gases.

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