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Species Matter: Wood Density Influences Tropical Forest Biomass at Multiple Scales

Phillips, OL and Sullivan, MJP and Baker, TR and Monteagudo Mendoza, A and Vargas, PN and Vásquez, R (2019) Species Matter: Wood Density Influences Tropical Forest Biomass at Multiple Scales. Surveys in Geophysics, 40 (4). pp. 913-935. ISSN 0169-3298

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Abstract

© 2019, The Author(s). The mass of carbon contained in trees is governed by the volume and density of their wood. This represents a challenge to most remote sensing technologies, which typically detect surface structure and parameters related to wood volume but not to its density. Since wood density is largely determined by taxonomic identity this challenge is greatest in tropical forests where there are tens of thousands of tree species. Here, using pan-tropical literature and new analyses in Amazonia with plots with reliable identifications we assess the impact that species-related variation in wood density has on biomass estimates of mature tropical forests. We find impacts of species on forest biomass due to wood density at all scales from the individual tree up to the whole biome: variation in tree species composition regulates how much carbon forests can store. Even local differences in composition can cause variation in forest biomass and carbon density of 20% between subtly different local forest types, while additional large-scale floristic variation leads to variation in mean wood density of 10–30% across Amazonia and the tropics. Further, because species composition varies at all scales and even vertically within a stand, our analysis shows that bias and uncertainty always result if individual identity is ignored. Since sufficient inventory-based evidence based on botanical identification now exists to show that species composition matters biome-wide for biomass, we here assemble and provide mean basal-area-weighted wood density values for different forests across the lowand tropical biome. These range widely, from 0.467 to 0.728 g cm−3 with a pan-tropical mean of 0.619 g cm−3. Our analysis shows that mapping tropical ecosystem carbon always benefits from locally validated measurement of tree-by-tree botanical identity combined with tree-by-tree measurement of dimensions. Therefore whenever possible, efforts to map and monitor tropical forest carbon using remote sensing techniques should be combined with tree-level measurement of species identity by botanists working in inventory plots.

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