On the trail of a missing carbon sink


On the weekend, we went skiing. And as we neared the end of the trail, we came upon a young tree with deep, vertical claw marks grooving the trunk for a metre above the snow line.

I’d never seen anything like it before. But then I remembered a neighbour telling us he’d seen a pair of bobcats in the late fall. And a second pair shortly afterward.

The latest snowfall had obliterated any tracks near the tree, so I couldn’t confirm that a bobcat had been sharpening its claws. But the thought that there could be a pair so close to our house elated us.

That there are bobcats near us, there is no doubt. A second neighbour saw them too. And he also claims to have seen a cougar. « I couldn’t believe it,’’ he said. « But with that long tail wound out behind it, it couldn’t have been anything else.’’ I find it difficult to accept there is a cougar hanging about. But I hope there is.

There haven’t been bobcats and cougars in our area for a lifetime or more. The trees had been logged and the land cleared for cattle and hay. Any animal that posed the slightest hint of a threat to livestock, or chickens, was shot.

However, with so many farming families leaving the land over the past 50 years, the trees have gradually  come back, so that now I can go walking in deep woods and find old wire fences snaking among trees that are 15 metres tall. And I can link many of the sprawling swamplands that meander across the landscape to former pastures shown in old aerial photographs.

Bobcats and cougars are wide-ranging predators. If they are back, it means the forests have become extensive and are supporting lots of game.

As you drive eastward from Toronto, and just before you get to Trenton, you can see trees beginning to seriously reclaim land. They keep at it all the way to the flat farmlands at the Quebec border.

« Is this,’’ I wonder, « part of the missing carbon sink?’’

Newspapers reported last month that researchers have launched a three-year study to find the « missing sink’’ that is responsible for lower than expected carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the Northern Hemisphere. A carbon sink absorbs CO2. Trees do that, as do oceans.

Carbon sinks protect against global warming, because the CO2 they remove would otherwise increase the insulating blanket of greenhouse gases enveloping the world.

To hear that something in the Northern Hemisphere is pulling more CO2 out of the air than expected is heady news, since last year the rain forests of the Amazon River Basin, the « lungs’’ of the planet as they’re often called, may have done exactly the reverse.

Scientists at the Woods Hole Research Laboratory in Massachusetts estimated that during El Niño years, the Amazon Basin has been producing about 200 million tonnes more CO2 than it has been absorbing. Although no one yet knows why, it is linked to the El Niño droughts that have affected the basin.

Their research was based on the three El Niño years from 1980 to 1994. Data from last year‘s El Niño has not yet been fully analyzed.

The scary thing about their finding is that drought, where once there was rain, is precisely the kind of chaotic weather change than global warming can bring.

Like everyone else, I suppose, I find myself vacillating between hope and despair: hope in the recuperative power of nature; despair over what we destroy.

Every now and then, to escape this tug-of-war, I simply enjoy the outdoors — as we did a couple of days after Christmas when went skating on the lake behind our property. There was no snow; the black ice was so  clear you could see the bottom of the lake; the sun was shining; and we spent the afternoon gliding after fish swimming below the ice.

Next, it will be midnight skiing. We’re waiting for the full moon at the end of the month.

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