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Climate benefits of forest restoration revealed

Tropical forests are converted at an alarming rate through deforestation, but also have the potential to regrow naturally on abandoned lands. Studies published recently by international teams of scientists including College of the Atlantic Elizabeth Battles Newlin Professor of Botany Susan Letcher show that regrowing tropical forests recover surprisingly fast and identify the best types of trees for aiding in this action. 

The studies conclude that just 20 years after replanting, nearly 80% of the soil fertility, carbon storage, and tree diversity of old-growth forests returns. Natural regeneration is a low-cost, nature-based solution for climate change mitigation, biodiversity conservation, and ecosystem restoration, the studies conclude. 

COA Elizabeth Battles Newlin Chair in Botany Susan G. Letcher with Willow in Acadia National Park...COA Elizabeth Battles Newlin Chair in Botany Susan G. Letcher with Willow in Acadia National Park.“Our research provides a really important framework for assessing and monitoring forest recovery at a global scale,” Letcher said. ““Natural forest regeneration is a powerful tool for ecological restoration, as a low-cost option with optimal outcomes for biodiversity conservation.”

The international teams of tropical ecologists analysed how 12 forest attributes recover during the natural process of forest regeneration, and how their recovery is interrelated using 77 landscapes and more than 2200 forest plots across tropical America and West Africa. They analysed recovery in functional properties of 30 tropical forests across North and South America, using data from over one thousand plots and 127,000 trees. 

The landmark study on tropical forest recovery was published in Science, and followed quickly with a second paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which provided insights which type of tree species should be selected for restoration plantings.

“While it is essential to actively protect old-growth forests and stop further deforestation, tropical forests have the potential to regrow naturally in already deforested areas on abandoned lands,” said Wageningen University ecologist Lourens Poorter, lead author on both studies. “These regrowing forests cover vast areas, and can contribute to local and global targets for ecosystem restoration. They provide global benefits for climate change mitigation and adaptation and biodiversity conservation, and many other services for local people, such as water, fuel, wood, and non-timber forest products”.