Effects of Forest Disturbance on Vegetation Structure and Above-Ground Carbon in Three Isolated Forest Patches of Taita Hills ()
Cite this paper
Received 6 February 2016; accepted 26 April 2016; published 29 April 2016
Although forests can mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration and storage (Marland & Schlamadinger, 1997; Chhatre & Agrawal, 2009; Galik & Jackson, 2009) , the contrary is increasingly manifested, particularly in tropical forests as carbon emission through deforestation and forest degradation (Houghton, 2012; Ryan et al., 2012) . For example, tropical deforestation is estimated to have released 1 - 2 billion tonnes of carbon annually during 1990s (Houghton, 2005; Gibbs et al., 2007) . This emission accounted for approximately 15% - 25% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions (Malhi & Grace, 2000; Fearnside & Laurance, 2003, 2004; Houghton, 2005) . In Africa, deforestation accounts for nearly 70% of total emissions (FAO, 2005a, 2005b) . Moreover, CO2 emissions from forest degradation increased significantly, from 0.4 Gt CO2 yr−1 in the 1990s, to 1.1 Gt CO2 yr−1 in 2001-2010 (Federici et al., 2015) and it therefore a critical driver of climate change that requires the deserved attention.
Forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change because of their enormous capacity to sequester and store more carbon when compared to other terrestrial ecosystems (Dale et al., 2001; Ryan et al., 2010; McKinley et al., 2011) . However, when forests are cleared or degraded, the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), thus negating the aforementioned mitigation.
As the concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to increase, scientists and natural resources managers are exploring mitigation options that maximize the amount of carbon stored in terrestrial ecosystems (Malmsheimer et al., 2008) . About 60% of the world’s terrestrial carbon is contained in forest ecosystems, so the response of forests to changes in climate or disturbance regime can have implications for regional and global carbon cycling (Winjum et al., 1992; Dale et al., 2001; Ryan et al., 2010; McKinley et al., 2011) . The amount of carbon stored within a forest does not remain fixed through time. As trees grow and increase in size, the corresponding carbon stocks also increase, and these relationships between forest age and ecosystem carbon pools are well recognized (Otuoma et al., 2016) . Forest carbon stocks typically increase with age until becoming relatively stable after 100 - 150 years, while net ecosystem carbon balance often peaks much earlier and gradually declines to near zero (Pregitzer & Euskirchen, 2004; Bradford & Kastendick, 2010; Williams et al., 2012) . Natural and anthropogenic disturbance events that alter forest stand structure influence site-level carbon stocks and fluxes (Kashian et al., 2006; Gough et al., 2007; Gough et al., 2008; Nave et al., 2010) . Likewise, landscape to regional disturbance regimes or management strategies that alter forest diameter-class distributions over large areas will ultimately drive changes in carbon stocks at landscape to regional levels (Heath & Birdsey, 1993; Pregitzer & Euskirchen, 2004; Mouillot & Field, 2005; Birdsey et al., 2006; Depro et al., 2008; Scheller et al., 2011) .
Already, changes in global climate are occurring (Bernstein et al., 2007) . Due to global changes in climate, natural disturbances are also expected to become more frequent and of higher intensity (Westerling, 2006; Littell et al., 2009; Schelhaas et al., 2010) . Natural disturbances such as forest fires, pests and diseases outbreaks, and extreme weather conditions like El Niño rains typically result in short-term losses in forest carbon stocks, potentially shifting forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources (McKinley et al., 2011; Scheller et al., 2011; Stinson et al., 2011) and potentially influencing climatic conditions via other mechanisms, notably altered albedo (the amount of radiation that is reflected from the Earth’s surface) and energy balance (Randerson et al., 2006; Anderson et al., 2010) . Similarly, the frequency of disturbance across forest areas can also radically alter the potential for carbon storage. In fact at regional scales, increases in disturbance frequency and severity can result in widespread loss of forest carbon stocks (Kurz et al., 2008; Rogers et al., 2011) , while decreases in disturbance frequency are estimated to increase ecosystem carbon stocks by nearly 100% in some regions (Hudiburg et al., 2009) .
Illegal logging for timber and other wood based forest products e.g. fuel wood and poles and encroachment for agriculture are the most common forms of forest disturbance that influence forest carbon stocks by both removing carbon from the ecosystem in form of harvested material and by shifting carbon into detrital pools where it is subsequently returned to the atmosphere through decomposition (McKinley et al., 2011) . Other disturbances include forest fires, grazing and extreme weather conditions such as prolonged droughts and El Niño. All these forms of disturbances occur quite often in Kenya resulting into reduced potential of forests including those found in Taita Hills to store carbon.
Taita Hills form the northeastern part of the Eastern Arc Mountains, a mountain range with an exceptionally high degree of endemism and conservation value (Myers et al., 2000; Burgess et al., 2007; Hall et al., 2009) . These forests of Taita Hills are among the 34 global biodiversity hotspots because of the high number of endemic plant and animal species (Myers et al., 2002; Conservation International, 2005). However, the area of indigenous forest has declined, and becomes fragmented and degraded as a result of deforestation and planting of exotic tree species in degraded sites formerly under indigenous forest (Beentje, 1988; Rogo & Oguge, 2000; Pellikka et al., 2009) . Lately, deforestation of the indigenous forests has been halted and forest conservation and other activities have been introduced in the wake of participatory forest management (Himberg et al., 2009). Although assessment of species biodiversity and similarities between and within the exotic plantations of pine, eucalyptus and cypress, and between the indigenous forest in Ngangao, Chawia and Mbololo forest fragments with the exotic forest in the same forest fragments in the Taita Hills has been done (Rogers, 1996; Omoro et al., 2010) , little is known about the forest structure of Ngangao, Chawia and Mbololo forest fragments and their carbon storage potential.
There are few studies which have been conducted to examine the carbon storage potential of three main forest fragments; Mbololo, Ngangao and Chawia in Taita Hills (Omoro et al., 2013) . The calculation of carbon stock held by individual trees has been done using wood density values for the indigenous species obtained from Reyes et al. (1992) and the global wood density database developed by Zanne et al. (2009) . In cases where the wood density for a species was not listed, an average value of 0.5 was used, as recommended by Chave et al., (2005) for trees from tropical forests. However, none of the tree species from Taita Hills was used in the development of the global wood density database. Inclusion of height and wood density in above-ground biomass (AGB) estimation models has been found to improve on the accuracy in quantifying the carbon stock (Chave et al., 2005, 2014) . However, to-date, studies conducted in fragmented forests of Taita Hills to quantify carbon sequestration potential of the forest fragments have used models with diameter at breast height (DBH) and wood density to estimate the amount of carbon held by these forests (Omoro et al., 2013) leaving out tree height; an important variable in biomass estimation. Improving on the accuracy in quantifying the carbon stock by using models for estimating AGB that integrate diameter at breast height (DBH), wood density and height to calculate the carbon stored by the Mbololo, Ngangao and Chawia forest fragments is therefore a prerequisite in tackling climate change in the context of REDD+ activities (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and increasing the carbon stock in forests), where governments require more accurate assessment of the forest carbon stocks.
Moreover, no studies have been undertaken to characterize how disturbance can alter forest carbon dynamics over large areas of indigenous forests. Since any attempts to manage and conserve natural forests for enhancing ecosystem carbon stocks must occur
Conflicts of Interest
The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
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