Monday, September 16, 2013

Captain Obvious Turns Science Journalist

I really love science. And I love science journalism, because it's a never-ending font of wonder and merriment.

Take this example: it must be a really slow news day when when you report that scientists have "discovered" that trees grow back when you cut them down. Oh, and they really don't depend on people to do that.

From Science World Report
"Tropical Trees 'Fix' Themselves After Being
Logged or Cleared: Capturing Nitrogen"
Now, I don't live in the rainforest... I live on the outskirts of the Sumter National Forest. This is a forest that didn't exist when my stepfather traveled through the cotton fields on the way to Columbia in the 1930s. So even poor country boys from South Carolina understand clearly that clear-cut forests grow back.

But my favorite quote of this piece just has to be the following:
"The findings are huge when it comes to carbon storage. If trees could grow and store carbon, they could essentially turn into a carbon sink, which could have major implications for halting the tide of climate change."
Pardon my open jaw, but...
        ...if trees could grow?
                 ...if trees could store carbon?

What do they think trees DO?

Now I'm wearing my serious face.

The real story, of course, is the part about nitrogen fixation, but I'm not really convinced this should have been a surprise to them either. Rather, their study quite likely confirmed a hypothesis. Otherwise, lush green tropical jungles wouldn't stay lush and green very long. They'd die back as the soil is depleted. Certain species of plant and bacteria prevent it. From the original article in Nature:
Many tropical forests possess tree species capable of fixing atmospheric dinitrogen (N2), but it is unclear whether this functional group can supply the nitrogen needed as forests recover from disturbance or previous land use, or expand in response to rising CO2.
In other words, they already know that tropical forests can fix enough nitrogen to sustain themselves. The question was whether they could fix enough to increase once the land was cleared and the soil further depleted by farming. The study finds a mechanism by which they can.

And this is why you should read science journals and not just the summaries by popularizers in web magazines. The kids who write those stories say the darnedest things.

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