Forests On The Tibetan Plateau May Be Growing Faster Thanks To Climate Change

More nutrients, more water, and more carbon

Forests along the Tibetan Plateau

Forests along the Tibetan Plateau

The location of the study area in China’s Sichuan province.Silva et al. Sci. Adv. 2016; 2 : e1501302

The operative word of the phrase climate change is "change." Change in and of itself is neither good nor bad. The way in which climate is changing is unquestionably devastating to many ecosystems, and humans, but climate isn't changing the same way in all places, and there are a few species at least which are seizing the change and running with it.

In a paper published today in Science Advances, researchers say that a combination of changes on the Tibetan plateau in China is allowing forests of Abies faxoniana, a type of fir tree, to thrive.

Warming weather is melting the permafrost in the alpine altitudes of the plateau, moistening the ground and making nutrients like nitrogen available to hungry plants that weren't accessible when the ground was frozen solid.

Combine that with increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human activities, and it's the perfect recipe for tree growth.

The researchers found that stands of the trees, which can live for 350 years, grew slowly from 1760 until about 1900. There were sharp increases in growth during the 1930s and 1960s, but in the last 20-30 years the growth rate has accelerated dramatically, and the trees are now growing 5-10 times faster than they were in the 1800s--and are pushing beyond their forested borders, expanding slowly into nearby meadows.

This doesn't mean that the same thing will happen everywhere. Though carbon dioxide levels are rising around the world, more carbon in the atmosphere alone isn't enough to cause plants to thrive. That's because not all forests have the same amounts of increased water and nutrients, factors that encourage the accelerated growth seen in the trees in the study.