Woodland areas that regrow after forest fires, logging operations, or other disturbances can sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide and they play an unexpectedly valuable role in mitigating climate change, according to a study by 60 scientists from across the globe.

The research, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, is the first to quantify how much carbon these so-called second-growth forests can sequester — and it turns out it’s huge. The scientists found that over the span of 40 years, Latin American second-growth forests can stash away the equivalent of 21 years’ worth of the region’s human carbon dioxide emissions.

An aerial photograph of primary and secondary forest and agriculture fields on the Southern Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
An aerial photograph of primary and secondary forest and agriculture fields on the Southern Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.Angélica Almeyda Zambrano/Science Advances

Forests — especially tropical rainforests such as the Amazon — absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in tree trunks, roots, and soil.

When researchers have considered the role of forests in stabilizing the climate, they’ve looked primarily at preventing deforestation and the carbon storage capabilities of tropical old-growth forests. Old-growth trees — those that have never been cut — store the most carbon. The Amazon alone stores about a quarter of all human carbon dioxide emissions.