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A major science and research infrastructure funding award will enable scientists at the School of Agriculture and Forest Sciences to establish a unique facility at the University's field station at Henfaes, Abergwyngregyn. The new facility will allow scientists to measure how trees will react to climate change conditions anticipated for Wales.
The single factor common to all predictions of climate change is that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels will increase. While governments can set targets to reduce activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, that contribute carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, one of the measures that can be taken to 'balance' the 'carbon budget' is to plant more trees, as trees absorb carbon dioxide. This involves assessing the point at which sufficient trees have been planted to offset the CO2 released into the atmosphere.
The calculation required to balancing the carbon budget is not a simple one. Trees and other plant material increase their growth rate under higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations, as the higher CO2 acts as a kind of fertiliser. This should lead to higher absorption rates of CO2. In turn, as the trees grow, they also take up more ground-stored water. This can lead to further release of CO2 as the water table falls and wet soil dries out. Carbon that is held in the wet soil is then released. This extra source of carbon dioxide also needs to be included in the budget balancing equation.
The Free Air Carbon Exchange (FACE) facility to be developed by the University's School of Agricultural and Forest Sciences will be the only one of its kind in the UK and only the 4th in Europe, (USA has three such facilities). The unique aspect of this facility is that it allows trees to be grown not in greenhouses or pots, but in the open fields, while still being suffused by increased atmospheric CO2. This replicates future atmospheric conditions as closely as is possible. Scientists are initally interested in two areas of research; at what point increased planting of trees will balance the carbon 'budget'; and what species of trees will thrive 50- 80 years hence.
"The National Assembly's new afforestation strategy for Wales recognises the need for new areas of woodland to be planted in Wales. It also includes a move towards continuous cover forestry. Continuous cover forestry of CCF involves growing a rotation of mixed broad leaved and evergreen trees of varying ages which are individually felled on maturity, as opposed to the current practice of clear felling whole monoculture plantations," explained Professor Douglas Godbold, who will be running the FACE facility.
"By avoiding clear felling, continuous tree cover maintains woodland biodiversity, and is more in keeping with the landscape. We need to find out now what trees are going to thirve best in 80 years time as the maximum turn-around for continuous cover forestry can be an 80 year cycle as opposed to the current 35 year. That is why it is so important that this FACE facility enables us to identify the optimum mix of trees that will thrive, not only in today's climate conditions but also in those predicted for 50 to 80 years hence" he added.