A mathematical model reveals commonality within the diversity of leaf decay.
Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office
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....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.
Instead, MIT researchers have analyzed data from a variety of forests and ecosystems across North America, and discovered general trends in decay rates among all leaves. The scientists devised a mathematical procedure to transform observations of decay into distributions of rates. They found that the shape of the resulting curve is independent of climate, location and leaf composition. However, the details of that shape — the range of rates that it spans, and the mean rate — vary with climatic conditions and plant composition. In general, the scientists found that plant composition determines the range of rates, and that as temperatures increase, all plant matter decays faster.