Forest Conservation Efforts – NFP, Western Ghats, etc.

How long is Carbon is stored in plants?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Carbon-14, Carbon Storage in Plants

Why in the News?

A recent study in the Science journal indicates that the storage of carbon in terrestrial vegetation is more short-lived and more vulnerable to climate change than previously estimated.

Carbon Absorption and Storage in Plants

  • Current models may overestimate the time carbon remains stored in plants, meaning it returns to the atmosphere sooner than previously expected.
  • Experts emphasised that while plants and forests play a crucial role in drawing down carbon dioxide, their potential is limited.
  • The study calls for a rapid reduction in fossil fuel emissions to mitigate climate change impacts.

Key Findings:  

  • Plants and soils absorb 30% of annual carbon dioxide emissions from human activities, mitigating climate change.
  • However, there are gaps in understanding the stability and mechanisms of this carbon storage.

Use of Radiocarbon (Carbon-14) in Research

  • Researchers used Carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, to track carbon accumulation and turnover in the terrestrial biosphere.
  • Nuclear bomb testing in the 1950s and 1960s increased atmospheric C-14 levels, providing a unique opportunity to study carbon cycling.

Study Results

  • By analysing C-14 accumulation in plants from 1963 to 1967, researchers compared these findings to current models.
  • The analysis showed that net primary productivity (the rate of new plant tissue creation) is likely at least 80 petagrams of carbon (PgC) per year, higher than the 43-76 PgC per year predicted by current models.
  • The C-14 accumulation in vegetation during 1963-67 was 69 ± 24 ×10²⁶, suggesting a more rapid carbon cycle between the atmosphere and biosphere than previously thought.

Back2Basics: Carbon-14 and Carbon Dating

  • Carbon dating is a widely used method for determining the age of organic materials that were once living.
  • The method is based on the radioactive decay of Carbon-14 (C-14), an isotope of carbon with an atomic mass of 14.
  • It works by measuring the ratio of C-12 to C-14 in the atmosphere, as well as in plants and animals that acquire carbon through photosynthesis or food consumption.

The Half-Life Concept

  • Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 ± 40 years—i.e., half the amount of the radioisotope present at any given time will undergo spontaneous disintegration during the succeeding 5,730 years.
  • Because carbon-14 decays at this constant rate, an estimate of the date at which an organism died can be made by measuring the amount of its residual radiocarbon.

Implications of the Study: Reforestation is inadequate

  • Today, reforestation is proposed to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but trees do not return the CO2 to the geological layers from which the fossil fuels came.
  • This sink is transitory and this study shows us that its duration is even shorter than we thought.


[2012] Consider the following agricultural practices:

  1. Contour bunding
  2. Relay cropping
  3. Zero tillage

In the context of global climate change, which of the above helps/help in carbon sequestration/storage in the soil?

(a) 1 and 2 only
(b) 3 only
(c) 1, 2 and 3
(d) None of them

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