As Fall turns leaves to colorful displays, starting in northern New England, and moving ever southward as Fall progresses, we think of the approaching Winter. We might also think of all the carbon that the once green leaves contain that will be released to the atmosphere as they decay.
In the springtime, leaves soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting the gas into organic carbon compounds. Come autumn, trees shed their leaves, leaving them to decompose in the soil as they are eaten by microbes. Over time, decaying leaves release carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
In fact, the natural decay of organic carbon contributes more than 90 percent of the yearly carbon dioxide released into Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Understanding the rate at which leaves decay can help scientists predict this global flux of carbon dioxide, and develop better models for climate change. But this is a thorny problem: A single leaf may undergo different rates of decay depending on a number of variables: local climate, soil, microbes and a leaf’s composition. Differentiating the decay rates among various species, let alone forests, is a monumental task.