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04 May 2010

CO2 effects on plants increases global warming

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Trees and other plants help keep the planet cool, but rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are turning down this global air conditioner

According to a new study by researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science, in some regions more than a quarter of the warming from increased carbon dioxide is due to its direct impact on vegetation. This warming is in addition to carbon dioxide's better-known effect as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. For scientists trying to predict global climate change in the coming century, the study underscores the importance of including plants in their climate models.

"Plants have a very complex and diverse influence on the climate system," says study co-author Ken Caldeira of Carnegie's Department of Global Ecology. "Plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but they also have other effects, such as changing the amount of evaporation from the land surface. It's impossible to make good climate predictions without taking all of these factors into account."

Plants give off water through tiny pores in their leaves, a process called evapotranspiration that cools the plant, just as perspiration cools our bodies. On a hot day, a tree can release tens of gallons of water into the air, acting as a natural air conditioner for its surroundings. The plants absorb carbon dioxide for photosynthesis through the same pores (called stomata). But when carbon dioxide levels are high, the leaf pores shrink. This causes less water to be released, diminishing the tree's cooling power.

The warming effects of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas have been known for a long time, says Caldeira. But he and fellow Carnegie scientist Long Cao were concerned that it is not as widely recognized that carbon dioxide also warms our planet by its direct effects on plants. Previous work by Carnegie's Chris Field and Joe Berry had indicated that the effects were important. "There is no longer any doubt that carbon dioxide decreases evaporative cooling by plants and that this decreased cooling adds to global warming," says Cao. "This effect would cause significant warming even if carbon dioxide were not a greenhouse gas."


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