Scientists have discovered that termites thrive in our rapidly warming world; they are likely to aggravate climate change by altering the global carbon cycle accordingly.
In a study published by Science (behind a paywall), the researchers were surprised at how much these insects like the increasing temperatures and humidity due to climate change, mainly in tropical and subtropical ecosystems. The dead wood in these forests is an important carbon reservoir just waiting to be burned or decomposed; the study focused on how termites play a vital role in its decomposition and how much CO2 they release into the atmosphere. The process is a new feedback loop of global warming that will challenge our ability to discover solutions to biosphere degradation.
Previous studies have focused only on the decomposition of dead wood by microbial activity. Researchers in the scientific study found that termites are more sensitive than microbes to temperature increases, which leads to an increase in their wood consumption. play a “larger role in global wood decomposition as the climate warms”.
Termites are part of a balanced ecosystem and are a natural part of the carbon cycle; that has changed for the worse as the sweltering heat expands their territory towards the poles.
One researcher noted, “If the deadwood pool is consumed quickly, the carbon stored there will be quickly released into the atmosphere. But if decomposition is slow, the size of the deadwood pool may increase.”
Trees play an essential role in the global carbon cycle by absorbing CO2 during photosynthesis. Trees can live a very long time if man gives them a chance by reducing the greenhouse gases in the air that cause the biosphere to overheat.
Trees store carbon in their biomass and root systems; those trees that do not survive in the short or long term fall to the forest floor and are eaten by microbes and insects; the process stores carbon partly in the ground and releases part of it into the atmosphere.
In a separate study published in Nature in 2021, scientists found that the “The amount of carbon released by dead wood is equivalent to about 115% of emissions from fossil fuels,” adds Dr. Werner Rammer, a TUM scientist who played the lead role in the global calculations. They found rainforests “A 93 percent, tropical forests contribute disproportionately to this result due to their high wood mass combined with their rapid decomposition processes.”
Our results were synthesized into a model to predict how termite consumption of dead wood might change globally in response to climate change.
Over the next several decades, we expect greater termite activity, as climate change projections show that suitable termite habitat will expand north and south of the equator.
This will mean that the carbon cycle through the deadwood pool will accelerate, returning the carbon dioxide fixed by the trees to the atmosphere, which could limit carbon storage in these ecosystems.
Reducing the amount of carbon stored on earth could then trigger a feedback loop to accelerate the rate of climate change.
We have long known that human-caused climate change would favor a few winners but leave many losers.
It would seem that the humble termite is likely one of those winners, on the verge of a significant global expansion into its primary habitat.