Sources or sinks? The responses of tropical forests to current and future climate and atmospheric composition

Deborah A. Clark

Abstract

How tropical rainforests are responding to the ongoing global changes in atmospheric composition and climate is little studied and poorly understood. Although rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) could enhance forest productivity, increased temperatures and drought are likely to diminish it. The limited field data have produced conflicting views of the net impacts of these changes so far. One set of studies has seemed to point to enhanced carbon uptake; however, questions have arisen about these findings, and recent experiments with tropical forest trees indicate carbon saturation of canopy leaves and no biomass increase under enhanced CO2. Other field observations indicate decreased forest productivity and increased tree mortality in recent years of peak temperatures and drought (strong El Niño episodes). To determine current climatic responses of forests around the world tropics will require careful annual monitoring of ecosystem performance in representative forests. To develop the necessary process–level understanding of these responses will require intensified experimentation at the whole–tree and stand levels. Finally, a more complete understanding of tropical rainforest carbon cycling is needed for determining whether these ecosystems are carbon sinks or sources now, and how this status might change during the next century.