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Study: Redwoods draw on old carbon reserves to recover after fire

A green sprout sticks up out of the bark of a charred redwood tree.
Andrew Richardson
A green sprout sticks up out of the bark of a charred redwood tree.

A new study from Northern Arizona University found redwood trees burned by wildfires can draw on century-old carbon reserves to resprout. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

It’s the oldest measurement ever made of stored carbon that’s been re-mobilized for new growth in a plant. In redwoods, that new growth appears as tiny green sprouts along the trunk that allow a tree to restart photosynthesis after fire destroys its foliage.

 Drew Peltier, the lead author of the study, says, "Redwoods, like all plants really, store carbon reserves as energy to prepare for stress in the future… The analogy I’ve been using is this gas tank analogy, where you never completely empty the tank."

The researchers also found redwoods keep buds under their bark in each new ring of growth so they can quickly produce a sprout when it’s needed. Mariah Carbone, one of the co-authors, says, "They’re really amazing on the outside, but they’re really amazing on the inside too. We found that they have old stores of carbons and these ancient buds that allow them to respond to fire."

The research was done on California redwoods that burned in a catastrophic wildfire in 2020.

Read the study:

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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