Scientists Discover Bizarre Contributor to Greenhouse Emissions — Tree Farts

  • Now you’ll always have something else to blame when you happen to let one rip.

We already know all too well that certain farts and toots can impact on the climate. For example, methane from cow farts is one of the most significant greenhouse gas contributors.

But it’s not just cows that squeeze out harmful emanations. Apparently, trees can do it too.

Researchers have found that tree farts are a minor but nonetheless notable contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. This whole thing gets even weirder when they tell you that the farting trees are no longer alive.

Indeed, living trees don’t toot — instead they bind carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. But when trees die, things start getting spooky.

Ghosts forests — masses of dead trees — can no longer take up carbon dioxide, and they turn into gas emitters instead. And according to the study, about 20% of those gases are from tree farts — at least in North Carolina.

So how does this whole thing work? Let’s find out.

“Yep, this one just farted.”

Tree Necromancy

To begin, we’re going to have to kill some trees. Figuratively — no one’s going for an axe.

In North Carolina, more and more ghost forests are cropping up around the state’s coastline. According to Keryn Gedan, a coastal ecologist at George Washington University, that’s due to rising sea levels.

As the oceans rise, saltwater floods onto dry land. And if you’ve heard the phrase “to salt the Earth,” you’ll know that salt isn’t good for plant life.

The salt from sea water essentially turn the soil toxic for plant life. The smallest plants go first, but eventually even the trees die, with only their now-decaying trunks sticking out of the newly born wet marshland.

Voila, a ghost forest. It looks like a forest, but it’s only undead at best.

And like human-based zombies, these zombie trees are an issue. As they begin to rot, they turn into gas emitters.

In the short term, ghost forests become major sources of greenhouse gases. But luckily, according to Gedan, nature has a way to eventually fix the problems.

“As forests convert to wetlands, we expect over long timescales that’s going to represent a substantial carbon sink,” she told Science News.

In the meanwhile, though, the trees keep spewing gas into the atmosphere.

From the Mouths of Children

So, we now have our ghost forest of zombie trees. But what exactly are these tree farts?

Well, of course trees don’t have a digestive tract, so they can’t actually fart. However, there are similarities between our toots and the gas emissions from the trees.

In case you’re unaware, we fart because microbes in our guts process organic matter — or food, in other words — producing gas. Similarly, microbes in the soil and the dead trees eat away at their organic matter, also giving birth to gas emissions.

The term “tree farts” was coined by Marcelo Ardón, an ecosystems ecologist and biochemist from North Carolina State University. He cites his children as inspiration for the name.

“I have an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old, and fart jokes are what we talk about,” explained Ardón.

But it’s not all just toilet humor with him. Ardón also has a more poetic description for the gas emissions — he likens them to the “last breath of these forests.”

Small but Important Toots

Luckily, it turns out that tree farts aren’t exactly the most harmful greenhouse gas contributor. According to the researchers, dead trees fart out roughly 116 milligrams of carbon dioxide, 0.3 milligrams of methane, and 0.04 milligrams of nitrous oxide every hour, per square meter of tree.

To put that into perspective, just the soil of the ghost forest emits four times as much gas as the trees. A single dairy cow, meanwhile, blasts 27 grams of methane into the air — every single hour.

In the big picture, tree farts aren’t likely to be the straw that finally break’s global climate’s back. However, according to the researchers, understanding even these minor sources of greenhouse is important for understanding the global carbon budget.

If it helps us deal with climate change, there’s absolutely value in scientists sniffing out any and all tree farts.