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UW Today
May 20, 2013

The Amazon rain forest, popularly known as the lungs of the planet, inhales carbon dioxide as it exudes oxygen. Plants use carbon dioxide from the air to grow parts that eventually fall to the ground to decompose or get washed away by the region’s plentiful rainfall.

Until recently people believed much of the rain forest’s carbon floated down the Amazon River and ended up deep in the ocean. University of Washington research showed a decade ago that rivers exhale huge amounts of carbon dioxide – though left open the question of how that was possible, since bark and stems were thought to be too tough for river bacteria to digest.

A study published this week in Nature Geoscience resolves the conundrum, proving that woody plant matter is almost completely digested by bacteria living in the Amazon River, and that this tough stuff plays a major part in fueling the river’s breath.

The finding has implications for global carbon models, and for the ecology of the Amazon and the world’s other rivers.

“People thought this was one of the components that just got dumped into the ocean,” said first author Nick Ward, a UW doctoral student in oceanography. “We’ve found that terrestrial carbon is respired and basically turned into carbon dioxide as it travels down the river.”

Tough lignin, which helps form the main part of woody tissue, is the second most common component of terrestrial plants. Scientists believed that much of it got buried on the seafloor to stay there for centuries or millennia. The new paper shows river bacteria break it down within two weeks, and that just 5 percent of the Amazon rainforest’s carbon ever reaches the ocean.

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