Billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide risk being lost into the atmosphere due to tropical forest soils being significantly more sensitive to climate change than previously thought.
Carbon emissions from soils in tropical forests - which store one quarter of the world's soil carbon - could increase dramatically if temperatures continue to rise in line with current predictions, researchers say.
A new experiment conducted in Panama suggests these harmful emissions of soil carbon could rise by 55 per cent if the climate warms by four degrees Celsius.
Carbon dioxide is released naturally by soils through decomposition and plant root activity. However, the release of so much extra carbon dioxide - which the study found was coming from increased decomposition of soil organic matter - could trigger further global warming.
Previous research has shown that rising temperatures threaten to release carbon locked away in cooler or frozen soils - such as in the Arctic tundra. Until now, tropical soils were thought to be less sensitive to the effects of climate warming.