Katrina Severely Damaged Coastal Forests

Jeffrey Chambers, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, examines relations between global warming and damage to forests caused by intensifying weather systems.
(Photo by George Long)

Researchers led by Jeffrey Chambers, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane, have determined that the losses inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on Gulf Coast forest trees are enough to cancel out a year's worth of new tree biomass (trunks, branches and foliage) growth in other parts of the country.

Using satellite data provide by NASA, ecological field investigations and statistical analysis, the investigators estimate that 320 million large trees were killed or severely damaged by the August 2005 storm.

"The carbon that will be released as these trees decompose is enough to cancel out an entire year's worth of net gain by all U.S. forests. And this is only from a single storm," says Chambers, lead author of an article, "Hurricane Katrina's Carbon Footprint on Gulf Coast Forests," detailing the team's findings in the Nov. 16 issue of the journal Science.

"As the Earth's climate warms, evidence is mounting that hurricanes, tornados and frontal systems will gain in energy, producing more violent storms and stronger winds," according to Chambers. "Increased wind disturbance will cause more tree mortality and damage, and this dead wood will release additional carbon to the atmosphere, potentially amplifying global warming."

Investigators estimate that 320 million large trees were killed or severely damaged by Katrina.

Young, healthy forests play a vital role in removing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere by photosynthesis, and are thus important in the battle against global warming. These young forests are valued as "carbon sinks," removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in growing vegetation, Chambers explains.

The total amount of carbon stored in a forest is the result of the growth of new trees and existing trees, balanced with tree death from age and disturbance. Dead trees and downed wood decompose and release carbon to the atmosphere. Thus an increase in disturbance frequency, for example from more powerful storms, can tilt this balance toward the loss side, reversing the storing process and causing forests to become a source of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

"This increase in carbon emissions can enhance global warming in what is termed by scientists as a positive feedback mechanism," says Chambers. "Increased carbon dioxide warms the climate, causing more intense storms and elevated tree mortality, releasing yet more carbon dioxide and further warming the climate."

The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Institute for Climatic Change Research, was carried out by researchers at Tulane and the University of New Hampshire. Many of the methods used were first developed as part of a NASA Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia led by Chambers.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000