Mountains and Forests Act as Planet's 'Thermostat,' Research Suggests

Mountainous forests may be what keeps Earth from growing too hot or cold, scientists say.


Researchers studied root growth in the Peruvian Andes, where they found evidence suggesting that tree roots in mountainous regions serve as a "thermostat" for the planet.

By + More

Forget Nest. The planet’s most innovative thermostat may instead be millions of years old – and found in the mountains.

Tree roots in mountainous regions may play a key role in regulating Earth's temperature, researchers have found, helping prevent the globe from growing too hot or too cold.

For years, scientists from the United Kingdom’s Oxford and Sheffield universities studied Andean rain forests in Peru, where they measured tree roots at different altitudes every three months. In areas with warmer temperatures, they found the roots grew faster and broke down rocks into parts that soaked up carbon dioxide. At colder sites, the roots grew more slowly.

[READ: Report: STEM Job Market Much Larger Than Previously Reported]

“This is a simple process driven by tree root growth and the decomposition of organic material,” lead researcher Chris Doughty, a lecturer at Oxford University, said in a statement. “Yet it may contribute to Earth’s long-term climate stability. It seems to act like a thermostat, drawing more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere when it is warm and less when it is cooler.”

This process, known as "weathering," essentially "prevented the planet from reaching temperatures that are catastrophic for life," Doughty explained, eventually stabilizing temperatures as they rose and fell over the last 65 million years.

The team’s findings were published online Wednesday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.