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How Radiation and Drought are Affecting Trees, and Has Carbon Sunk?

The long term effect of nuclear contamination

A new report by the University of South Carolina has studied trees affected by the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986. They have added to previous research which allows them to see the lasting effects of nuclear radiation on both trees and wildlife. This has current importance to very recent events of the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan (which has seen more radiation leaks in recent days). In Chernobyl, many Scots Pines were affected by the disaster. Today, these trees can offer further information to scientists who want to explore the long-term effects of radiation. They can now see how the structure of trees has been affected 27 years later. Scientists claim that we are missing vital opportunities to study areas affected by nuclear disasters. The information gained from Chernobyl today may help shed light – and possible future solutions on the Fukushima problem.

Can carbon sink any deeper?

A tree report published by Nature Climate Change suggests that Europe’s ageing trees are no longer able to absorb carbon at the same rate as before. This has led to concerns that they are reaching a “saturation point” of their abilities to soak up carbon emissions. Human output of carbon dioxide – almost exclusively from the burning of fossil fuels – are very likely to be the main cause of rising temperatures since 1950, a U.N. panel of climate experts says. Until now, forests across Europe have been natural “sinks” – places where carbon can be freely absorbed and converted by forests. The Scientists’ recent tree surveys have shed new light on what we thought to be the limitless abilities of trees. But a continent-wide crisis might not be on the cards yet. Annemarie Bastrup-Birk – a tree specialist who works for the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen and who assisted with the report – added that the problem may only be limited to specific regions as there have been reported gains elsewhere.

The struggle to survive in the face of climate change

Closer to home in the UK, a new study has shown that past events also have long-term consequences for trees in the UK. New studies have shown that the drought of 1976 may have had a long-lasting effect on our beech trees.  Ecologists from Stirling University studied the Lady Wood Park in The Wye Valley. They found that the beech population had decreased, yet the sessile oak population had not been affected as badly, now outnumbering the beech trees. They found that the oaks were much more tolerant to drought conditions. The beech trees have not seen a full recovery since the drought. Ecologists see this as an opportunity to learn more about the long-term damage caused by abnormal weather. Climate extremes are generally low in the British Isles, but this study has provided a rare insight into the long-term effects on our UK environment.

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