Big trees three or more feet in diameter accounted for nearly half the biomass measured at a Yosemite National Park site, yet represented only one percent of the trees growing there.
This means just a few towering white fir, sugar pine and incense cedars per acre at the Yosemite site are disproportionately responsible for photosynthesis, converting carbon dioxide into plant tissue and sequestering that carbon in the forest, sometimes for centuries, according to James Lutz, a University of Washington research scientist in environmental and forest sciences. He's lead author of a paper on the largest quantitative study yet of the importance of big trees in temperate forests being published online May 2 on PLoS ONE.
"In a forest comprised of younger trees that are generally the same age, if you lose one percent of the trees, you lose one percent of the biomass," he said. "In a forest with large trees like the one we studied, if you lose one percent of the trees, you could lose half the biomass."
In 2009, scientists including Lutz reported that the density of large-diameter trees declined nearly 25 percent between the 1930s and 1990s in Yosemite National Park, even though the area was never logged. Scientists including co-author Andrew Larson of the University of Montana, also have found notable numbers of large trees dying in similar areas across the West.
Because of this, scientists have been keen to study a plot large enough to detect forest ecosystem changes involving large trees, including the effects of climate variability and change, possible culprits in the declines, Lutz said.
The new 63-acre study site in the western part of Yosemite National Park is one of the largest, fully-mapped plots in the world and the largest old-growth plot in North America. The tally of what's there, including the counting and tagging of 34,500 live trees, was done by citizen scientists, mainly undergraduate college students, led by Lutz, Larson, Ma
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