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New York termites are the worst type of pests, undermining the foundations of the great things we’ve built in this city. No surprises there. But what you may find surprising is the role that termites play in global warming:

A recent study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that termites may play a far bigger role in global warming than we previously thought. Behind wetlands, termites are the second biggest source of natural methane emissions. (Methane is an important greenhouse gas.)

In the study, scientists distributed 160 blocks of wood across five different forest areas, and measured how quickly the blocks decomposed. They found that three-quarters of the variation was explained by termites and other decomposer organisms.

It’s speculated that if global warming continues, termites may be able to spread farther north than they currently do. This would mean a faster rate of carbon emission from forests (via termites chowing down on more felled trees). And this would mean more methane, which could lead to further global warming through a positive feedback loop.

This is an example of why climate change and weather patterns are such notoriously tricky things to quantify precisely. Our climate is incredibly complex—it’s an amalgam of many different factors, many of which we probably aren’t even aware of. In other words, there are “known unknowns”—things we know that we don’t know—but also “unknown unknowns”—things we don’t even know that we don’t know. All these factors (both known and unknown) interact in confoundingly intricate ways. This ocean of complexity prevents us from isolating one factor and studying it by itself. It also means weather modeling is far from an exact science. (Let’s keep this in mind the next time we’re cursing the weatherman’s faulty predictions!)

Few people would think of termites playing a part in our climate, but it appears they do play a role—and it may not be a trivial one.

The scientists urge more research in this area, suggesting that more local data be gathered so that we can better understand how different conditions affect the decomposer organisms.

Call us today with your termite or other pest problem so you can rest easy.