Damage to living trees contributes to almost half of the biomass losses in tropical forests
Accurate estimates of forest biomass stocks and fluxes are needed to quantify global carbon budgets and assess the response of forests to climate change. However, most forest inventories consider tree mortality as the only aboveground biomass (AGB) loss without accounting for losses via damage to living trees: branchfall, trunk breakage, and wood decay. Here, we use ~151,000 annual records of tree survival and structural completeness to compare AGB loss via damage to living trees to total AGB loss (mortality + damage) in seven tropical forests widely distributed across environmental conditions. We find that 42% (3.62 Mg ha−1 year−1; 95% confidence interval [CI] 2.36–5.25) of total AGB loss (8.72 Mg ha−1 year−1; CI 5.57–12.86) is due to damage to living trees. Total AGB loss was highly variable among forests, but these differences were mainly caused by site variability in damage-related AGB losses rather than by mortality-related AGB losses. We show that conventional forest inventories overestimate stand-level AGB stocks by 4% (1%–17% range across forests) because assume structurally complete trees, underestimate total AGB loss by 29% (6%–57% range across forests) due to overlooked damage-related AGB losses, and overestimate AGB loss via mortality by 22% (7%–80% range across forests) because of the assumption that trees are undamaged before dying. Our results indicate that forest carbon fluxes are higher than previously thought. Damage on living trees is an underappreciated component of the forest carbon cycle that is likely to become even more important as the frequency and severity of forest disturbances increase.