Researchers from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in a sample study of sixty trees at Yale Myers Forest in northeastern Connecticut found that they contained concentrations of methane that were as high as 80,000 times the ambient levels.
Normal air concentrations are less than 2 parts per million, but the Yale researchers found average levels of 15,000 parts per million inside trees.
"These are flammable concentrations and because the conditions thought to be driving this process are common throughout the world's forests, we believe we have found a globally significant new source of this potent greenhouse gas," Kristofer Covey, the study's lead author said.
The estimated emission rate from an upland site at the Yale forest is roughly equivalent to burning 40 gallons of gasoline per hectare of forest per year.
It also has a global warming potential equivalent to 18 per cent of the carbon being sequestered by these forests, reducing their climate benefit of carbon sequestration by nearly one-fifth.
"If we extrapolate these findings to forests globally, the methane produced in trees represents 10 per cent of global emissions," the researchers said in a statement.
The trees producing methane are older between 80 and 100 years old and diseased. Although outwardly healthy, they are being hollowed out by a common fungal infection that slowly eats through the trunk, creating conditions favourable to methane-producing microorganisms called methanogens.
Red maple, an abundant species in North America, had the highest methane concentrations, but other common species, including oak, birch and pine were also producers of the gas.
The rate of methane emissions was 3.1 times higher in the summer, suggesting that higher temperatures may lead to increasing levels of forest methane that, in turn, lead to ever-higher temperatures.
"These findings suggest decay in living trees is important to biogeochemists and atmospheric scientists seeking to understand global greenhouse gas budgets and associated climate change," Covey said.
The study was published in journal Geophysical Research Letters.