Even carbon-hungry plants can't save us from climate change

Popular Science | 1/23/2019 | Staff
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Despite efforts to cut back, we’re still burning fossils fuels at record rates. Americans actually increased their emissions by an estimated 3.4 percent in 2018. And a new study reveals another reason why this is bad news for planet Earth.

Scientists at Columbia University found that drought and heat waves dry up soils, hurting the ability of plants to pull carbon from the atmosphere. And periods of wet weather don’t make up the difference, according to the study, which appeared today in the journal Nature.

Surprise - Drought - Heat - Vegetation - Carbon

“It’s no surprise that during a drought or heat wave vegetation is not going to store as much carbon,” says Julia Green, the lead author of the study. But these short term events could wreck plant carbon storage for years after. “These are really long lasting effects on the uptake of carbon, rather than just year-to-year variability.”

Together, the ocean and earthly plants currently absorb about half of our CO2 emissions. In the ocean, excess CO2 creates more acidic conditions, leading to outcomes like coral bleaching. On land, photosynthesizers use the gas together with sunlight to make food. While plants certainly haven’t been able to keep up with our carbon spewing, they have been trying their best. Terrestrial ecosystems have been taking up more and more carbon in recent decades, as evidenced by trends like the “fertilization effect,” in which plant growth accelerates to take up the additional CO2.

Scientists - Columbia - Effect - Green - Models

But the scientists at Columbia found that this effect might not last. Green ran four models of soil moisture and its effect of plant growth to find out how droughts, heat waves, and the gradual drying of soils caused by climate warming will affect carbon storage. She found that in...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Popular Science
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