Global Deforestation: Contribution to Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

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Science  09 Dec 1983:
Vol. 222, Issue 4628, pp. 1081-1086
DOI: 10.1126/science.222.4628.1081


A study of effects of terrestrial biota on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere suggests that the global net release of carbon due to forest clearing between 1860 and 1980 was between 135 x 1015 and 228 x 1015 grams. Between 1.8 x 1015 and 4.7 x 1015 grams of carbon were released in 1980, of which nearly 80 percent was due to deforestation, principally in the tropics. The annual release of carbon from the biota and soils exceeded the release from fossil fuels until about 1960. Because the biotic release has been and remains much larger than is commonly assumed, the airborne fraction, usually considered to be about 50 percent of the release from fossil fuels, was probably between 22 and 43 percent of the total carbon released in 1980. The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is thought by some to be increasing the storage of carbon in the earth's remaining forests sufficiently to offset the release from deforestation. The interpretation of the evidence presented here suggests no such effect; deforestation appears to be the dominant biotic effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide. If deforestation increases in proportion to population, the biotic release of carbon will reach 9 x 1015 grams per year before forests are exhausted early in the next century. The possibilities for limiting the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through reduction in use of fossil fuels and through management of forests may be greater than is commonly assumed.

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