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Scientists issue grim warning about leaves in tropical forests worldwide: 'Canary in a coal mine'

"You want to be able to detect something happening before it's widespread."

"You want to be able to detect something happening before it’s widespread.”

Photo Credit: iStock

A recent study shows that leaves in tropical forests worldwide could soon become so hot they can no longer photosynthesize, meaning they would no longer be able to use carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water to make energy. The ability to photosynthesize begins to fail when a leaf reaches a temperature of around 116 degrees Fahrenheit.

What's happening?

The study found that the average forest canopy temperature is 93 degrees Fahrenheit, with some exceeding 104 degrees Fahrenheit. But rather than looking at average temperatures, the scientists looked at the extreme. They found that currently, 0.01% of leaves are passing the critical temperature at which they begin to lose the ability to photosynthesize, which could potentially kill the leaf and the tree.

Joshua Fisher, a climate scientist at Chapman University and one of the report's authors, told CNN, "It's a little bit of a canary in the coal mine that we're starting to see, and you want to be able to detect something happening before it's widespread."

Why leaves unable to photosynthesize is concerning

While that number is small, it will continue to grow as the planet continues to warm. Tropical forests cover roughly 12% of the planet and play an extremely significant role in regulating the global climate by absorbing and storing carbon. 

These forests store about 46% of the world's carbon. If even a small portion of these forests die off, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase, which will lead to the planet warming even more, which will lead to more dead trees, and so on.

Tropical forests can withstand an increase in global temperature of around 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit before they reach the tipping point, making it all the more important that we limit the planet's warming to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, as set out at the United Nations climate summit in 2021.

What's being done about the warming planet

Fortunately, there are people all over the world working toward moving away from dirty energy and keeping the planet from overheating. Huge innovations are being made to make electric vehicles more efficient and affordable, more and more homes are making the move to renewable energy, and groups across the globe are working to stop deforestation. All of this aids in slowing the warming of the planet.

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