Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Without plants, Earth would cook under billions of tons of additional carbon

Date:
October 16, 2013
Source:
Princeton University
Summary:
Researchers found that Earth's terrestrial ecosystems have absorbed 186 billion to 192 billion tons of carbon since the mid-20th century, which has significantly contained the global temperature and levels of carbon in the atmosphere.

Researchers based at Princeton University found that Earth's terrestrial ecosystems have absorbed 186 billion to 192 billion tons of carbon since the mid-20th century, which has significantly contained the global temperature and levels of carbon in the atmosphere. The study is the first to specify the extent to which plants have prevented climate change since pre-industrial times.
Credit: © Stιphane Bidouze / Fotolia

Enhanced growth of Earth's leafy greens during the 20th century has significantly slowed the planet's transition to being red-hot, according to the first study to specify the extent to which plants have prevented climate change since pre-industrial times. Researchers based at Princeton University found that land ecosystems have kept the planet cooler by absorbing billions of tons of carbon, especially during the past 60 years.

The planet's land-based carbon "sink" -- or carbon-storage capacity -- has kept 186 billion to 192 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere since the mid-20th century, the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From the 1860s to the 1950s, land use by humans was a substantial source of the carbon entering the atmosphere because of deforestation and logging. After the 1950s, however, humans began to use land differently, such as by restoring forests and adopting agriculture that, while larger scale, is higher yield. At the same time, industries and automobiles continued to steadily emit carbon dioxide that contributed to a botanical boom. Although a greenhouse gas and pollutant, carbon dioxide also is a plant nutrient.

Had Earth's terrestrial ecosystems remained a carbon source they would have instead generated 65 billion to 82 billion tons of carbon in addition to the carbon that it would not have absorbed, the researchers found. That means a total of 251 billion to 274 billion additional tons of carbon would currently be in the atmosphere. That much carbon would have pushed the atmosphere's current carbon dioxide concentration to 485 parts-per-million (ppm), the researchers report -- well past the scientifically accepted threshold of 450 (ppm) at which Earth's climate could drastically and irreversibly change. The current concentration is 400 ppm.

Those "carbon savings" amount to a current average global temperature that is cooler by one-third of a degree Celsius (or a half-degree Fahrenheit), which would have been a sizeable jump, the researchers report. The planet has warmed by only 0.74 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit) since the early 1900s, and the point at which scientists calculate the global temperature would be dangerously high is a mere 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) more than pre-industrial levels.

The study is the most comprehensive look at the historical role of terrestrial ecosystems in controlling atmospheric carbon, explained first author Elena Shevliakova, a senior climate modeler in Princeton's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Previous research has focused on how plants might offset carbon in the future, but overlooked the importance of increased vegetation uptake in the past, she said.

"People always say we know carbon sinks are important for the climate," Shevliakova said. "We actually for the first time have a number and we can say what that sink means for us now in terms of carbon savings."

"Changes in carbon dioxide emissions from land-use activities need to be carefully considered. Until recently, most studies would just take fossil-fuel emissions and land-use emissions from simple models, plug them in and not consider how managed lands such as recovering forests take up carbon," she said. "It's not just climate -- it's people. On land, people are major drivers of changes in land carbon. They're not just taking carbon out of the land, they're actually changing the land's capacity to take up carbon."

Scott Saleska, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona who studies interactions between vegetation and climate, said that the researchers provide a potentially compelling argument for continued forest restoration and preservation by specifying the "climate impact" of vegetation. Saleska is familiar with the research but had no role in it.

"I think this does have implications for policies that try to value the carbon saved when you restore or preserve a forest," Saleska said. "This modeling approach could be used to state the complete 'climate impact' of preserving large forested areas, whereas most current approaches just account for the 'carbon impact.' Work like this could help forest-preservation programs more accurately consider the climate impacts of policy measures related to forest preservation."

Although the researchers saw a strong historical influence of carbon fertilization in carbon absorption, that exchange does have its limits, Saleska said. If carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue rising, more vegetation would be needed to maintain the size of the carbon sink Shevliakova and her colleagues reported.

"There is surely some limit to how long increasing carbon dioxide can continue to promote plant growth that absorbs carbon dioxide," Saleska said. "Carbon dioxide is food for plants, and putting more food out there stimulates them to 'eat' more. However, just like humans, eventually they get full and putting more food out doesn't stimulate more eating."

The researchers used the comprehensive Earth System Model (ESM2G), a climate-carbon cycle model developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid and Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), to simulate how carbon and climate interacted with vegetation, soil and marine ecosystems between 1861 and 2005. The GFDL model predicted changes in climate and in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide based on fossil fuel emissions of carbon. Uniquely, the model also predicted emissions from land-use changes -- such as deforestation, wood harvesting and forest regrowth -- that occurred from 1700 to 2005.

"Unless you really understand what the land-use processes are it's very hard to say what the system will do as a whole," said Shevliakova, who worked with corresponding author Stephen Pacala, Princeton's Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Sergey Malyshev, a professional specialist in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton; GFDL physical scientists Ronald Stouffer and John Krasting; and George Hurtt, a professor of geographical sciences at the University of Maryland.

"After the 1940s and 1950s, if you look at the land-use change trajectory, it's been slowed down in the expansion of agriculture and pastures," Shevliakova said. "When you go from extensive agriculture to intensive agriculture you industrialize the production of food, so people now use fertilizers instead of chopping down more forests. A decrease in global deforestation combined with enhanced vegetation growth caused by the rapid increase in carbon dioxide changed the land from a carbon source into a carbon sink."

For scientists, the model is a significant contribution to understanding the terrestrial carbon sink, Saleska said. Scientists only uncovered the land-based carbon sink about two decades ago, while models that can combine the effects of climate change and vegetation growth have only been around for a little more than 10 years, Saleska said. There is work to be done to refine climate models and the Princeton-led research opens up new possibilities while also lending confidence to future climate projections, Saleska said.

"A unique value of this study is that it simulates the past, for which, unlike the future, we have observations," Saleska said. "Past observations about climate and carbon dioxide provide a test about how good the model simulation was. If it's right about the past, we should have more confidence in its ability to predict the future."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Princeton University. The original article was written by Morgan Kelly. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. E. Shevliakova, R. J. Stouffer, S. Malyshev, J. P. Krasting, G. C. Hurtt, S. W. Pacala. Historical warming reduced due to enhanced land carbon uptake. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; 110 (42): 16730 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1314047110

Cite This Page:

Princeton University. "Without plants, Earth would cook under billions of tons of additional carbon." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 October 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131016145646.htm>.
Princeton University. (2013, October 16). Without plants, Earth would cook under billions of tons of additional carbon. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 17, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131016145646.htm
Princeton University. "Without plants, Earth would cook under billions of tons of additional carbon." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131016145646.htm (accessed September 17, 2014).

Share This



More Earth & Climate News

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: Scientists Examine Colossal Squid

Raw: Scientists Examine Colossal Squid

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) — Squid experts in New Zealand thawed and examined an unusual catch on Tuesday: a colossal squid. It was captured in Antarctica's remote Ross Sea in December last year and has been frozen for eight months. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Man Floats for 31 Hours in Gulf Waters

Man Floats for 31 Hours in Gulf Waters

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) — A Texas man is lucky to be alive after he and three others floated for more than a day in the Gulf of Mexico when their boat sank during a fishing trip. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Researchers Explore Shipwrecks Off Calif. Coast

Researchers Explore Shipwrecks Off Calif. Coast

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) — Federal researchers are exploring more than a dozen underwater sites where they believe ships sank in the treacherous waters west of San Francisco in the decades following the Gold Rush. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Isolated N. Korea Asks For International Help With Volcano

Isolated N. Korea Asks For International Help With Volcano

Newsy (Sep. 16, 2014) — Mount Paektu volcano in North Korea is showing signs of life and there's not much known about it. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins