Home Environment Jungle-strangling vines could contribute to global warming

Jungle-strangling vines could contribute to global warming

Vines are literally strangling the life out of forests, and as a result, the ability of tropical forests to recycle carbon dioxide is being quickly reduced.

lianas vines, Co2
"Lianas" by Mark Marathon - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

It’s election season in the United States and climate change is one of the biggest, and most divisive, buzzwords among presidential hopefuls. Meanwhile, nations around the world are attempting to come up with an agreement to curb CO2 emissions. All the while vines are strangling jungles, reducing their ability to recycle CO2.

The specific plants at blame are lianas vines, which are commonly found in tropical rain forests across the world. ‘Lianas’ does not refer a taxonomic group of specific plants, but instead is more akin to “shrub” or “tree.”  Lianas vines are long-stemmed, woody vines that crawl up trees and into canopies.

Now these vines are threatening to reduce the ability of jungles to store and recycle carbon. Researchers believe that the lianas vines, which are spreading aggressively across tropical rain forests, could reduce the overall CO2 recycling ability of tropical forests by 35 percent.

Confused on how plants can decrease CO2 recycling? As with cars, not all plants are equal in regards to their consumption and emissions. Vines, in this case, are gas guzzling SUVs, while trees are the sleek hybrids.

Large trees consume a lot of carbon dioxide, store it in their wood, and pump out a lot of oxygen. Rainforests happen to be stuffed with massive trees, making these forests especially vital for recycling oxygen.

Vines, on the other hand, consume less carbon dioxide very quickly through their leaves, and ultimately pump out less oxygen. For whatever reason, these vines are now spreading rapidly across rainforests.

At the same time, the vines are literally strangling the trees, and snuffing out saplings. Competition between plant life can be just as aggressive as competition among other lifeforms, though admittedly the battles move at a much slower pace.

Right now, the lianas vines are reducing tree growth, and increasing tree mortality. This means forests are losing the carbon sink benefits of trees, and gaining the comparatively inefficient vines in exchange.

In one patch of forest in Panama, the lianas vine actually reduced the forest’s ability to absorb CO2 by more than 75 percent. Researchers uncovered the effects of lianas vines by observing 16 different plots of land in the Panama’s Barro Colorado Nature Monument. Some plots of land contained the vines, others were cleared of them.

Tree growth declined, wood biomass levels were reduced, and the forest floor was covered with leaves that quickly rotted, releasing emissions into the air.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why the vines are spreading so rapidly, having largely coexisted in balance with the trees up until recent years. Droughts and increasing disturbances to forest ecosystems may be to blame, however.

This development is especially important given that carbon sinks around the world are under threat. The World Wildlife Fund reports that nearly 50 million acres of forest are lost per year. Deforestation is estimated to cause 18 to 25 percent of all carbon emissions per year.