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Scientists have long known that trees are essential to human life, making the air we breathe healthier by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis to store energy and releasing oxygen for us to take in.

But a newly published study by a West Virginia University professor and alumnus scrutinizing past studies of tree rings suggests that trees are still more vital in helping us breathe and keeping the Earth’s temperature in check than previously thought.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, WVU biology professor Richard Thomas and alumnus Justin Mathias found that photosynthesis is mainly responsible for a recent increase in trees’ water-use efficiency, the ratio of carbon taken up by photosynthesis to water loss that serves as a key measure in climate change research.

“Our study really pinpoints trees as an integral part of removing some of that fossil fuel emission from the air,” Thomas said. “… We’re really highlighting how important trees are in that process.”

Earlier studies held that a closing of pores on the leaves of trees amid an escalation in carbon dioxide in the air was allowing trees to use water more efficiently. But this new study could change how trees’ role in climate change is viewed, especially since water-use efficiency is an important link between water and carbon cycles.

“[Carbon cycle and water cycle] models will directly inform policy and land management in the future and in the present, so if we can reduce the uncertainty around our future predictions derived from those models, we can then make better predictions and more informed decisions for our policy in the future,” Mathias said.

Mathias was a doctoral student working under the direction of Thomas during the study, which analyzed tree rings spanning over 11 decades of 36 different tree species across 84 sites around the world.

After graduating last year, Mathias has joined the University of California, Santa Barbara as a postdoctoral scholar. Mathias plans to continue his work in ecosystem ecology and learn more about what fuels the forest ecosystems that fuel us.

“That’s the beautiful thing about science … There are still many more questions that need to be answered, and there’s a lot of research we can address moving forward,” Mathias said. “I guess science doesn’t sleep.”