Ancient Mayan Deforestation Is Still Affecting Central America’s Carbon Reserves

Posted: Aug 21 2018, 11:06am CDT | by , in Latest Science News


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Ancient Mayan Deforestation is Still Affecting Central America’s Carbon Reserves
Ancient stone carving of the Maya God Pauahtun, taken at Copan Ruinas, Honduras. Credit: Peter Douglas

It may take centuries or even millennia to recover if the soil is disturbed.

Ancient Maya civilization that dominated Central America for more than six hundred years mysteriously disappeared in the 9th century. Many natural and man-made factors contributed to their downfall and one of those is deforestation or the excessive removal of forests.

At the time of their collapse, Maya people cut down most of the trees across large swaths of the land for agriculture and cities and that large-scale deforestation eventually led to the soil erosion. The latest research reveals that the soil in the region is still not fully recovered and is releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"When you go to this area today, much of it looks like dense, old-growth rainforest. But when you look at soil carbon storage, it seems the ecosystem was fundamentally changed and never returned to its original state." Lead author Peter Douglas, a geochemist at McGill University said.

Soil contains almost three times as much carbon as Earth's atmosphere but little is known about long-term soil carbon reservoir patterns.

To find out, researchers extracted sediment cores from the bottom of three lakes in southern Mexico and Guatemala and used measurements of radiocarbon to determine the age of molecules called plant waxes. The plant waxes are tough and resistant molecules and a good tracer for changes in soil-carbon reservoirs. They are commonly found in ancient river and lake sediments.

When researchers compared the age of wax molecules with that of plant fossils deposited with the sediments, they found dramatic changes over time. The age difference between the fossils and the plant waxes subsequently decreased once the ancient Maya started to clear the land. This suggests that soil's carbon storage capacity became less stable and it released CO2 into the atmosphere after much shorter periods of time. Based on the data, researchers conclude that it may take centuries or even millennia to recover if the soil is disturbed.

“Putting these things together, we realized there was an important data-set here relating ancient deforestation to changes in soil carbon reservoirs," explained Douglas. “It could also have implications for how we design things like carbon offsets, which often involve reforestation but don't fully account for the long-term storage of carbon."

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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