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Earth Science

How the World's Agricultural Boom Has Changed CO2 Cycles 186

An anonymous reader writes Every year levels of carbon dioxide drop in the summer as plants "inhale," and climb again as they exhale after the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere. However, the last 50 years has seen the size of this swing has increase by as much as 50%, for reasons that aren't fully understood. A team of researchers may have the answer. They have shown that agricultural production, corn in particular, may generate up to 25% of the increase in this seasonal carbon cycle. "This study shows the power of modeling and data mining in addressing potential sources contributing to seasonal changes in carbon dioxide" program director for the National Science Foundation's Macro Systems Biology Program, who supported the research, Liz Blood says. "It points to the role of basic research in finding answers to complex problems."
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How the World's Agricultural Boom Has Changed CO2 Cycles

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  • Problem? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by WalksOnDirt ( 704461 ) on Monday November 24, 2014 @12:20AM (#48446977)

    How is this supposed to be a problem? The plants are sucking out more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they are growing, then releasing as they decay. It's interesting that it is noticeable, and bravo for measuring it, but I don't see any troubles that this will cause.

    • It's an academic problem. The problem is: our models don't explain the variation in the CO2 cycles that we were seeing. The solution to the problem is to include this research and adjust the models.
      • by Khyber ( 864651 )

        No, the solution is to quit being so narrow-minded and think of EVERYTHING in the entire process, instead of cherry-picking and focusing upon the plant itself.

        Huge land fields of corn require HUGE amounts of carbon fuels (currently) to harvest and process. Given their per-pound yield per acre in relative comparison to many other crops SUCKS, no surprise given tons of corn-based fuel/food production areas.

      • If the scientists are on the EPA panel, heaven forbid the research is valid or even useful and can be discussed.
    • It's also worth pointing out that those fertile fields growing our crops used to be covered with wild vegetation doing the exact same thing.

      • True but slower growing and slower dying. Less in, less out.

      • Artificial fertilizers, irrigation and modern farming methods have massively increased the productivity of farming over the natural state. Essentially turning energy (Coal, Oil, nuclear etc.) into higher yields.

      • No, wild vegetation doesn't behave very much like a cornfield, that's the point. An oak tree binds up carbon for much, much longer. Thus you don't get the same wild swings.

      • That's a very significant assumption.
        Different plants have very different growth and death rates. Aggriculture tends to plant vast areas with very similar vegetation, while natural ecologies tend to have a much more mixed vegetation (grass and trees and flowers of all sorts).
        So certainly it can be assumed that farm-lands would have a different CO2 impact compared to natural vegetation.

        It can get even further than that: the number one cause of deforestation in the Amazon these days is chopping down the fores

    • Northern Hemisphere bias? The gist seemed to be that the wealthy '1st world' of the north is disrupting the carbon cycle. Less crops, more trees?

      Food miles and all but perhaps the north should focus on importing food from the agricultural powerhouses of Argentina and Australia (plus those NZ apples I've seen in supermarkets in Europe and North America). China just signed a FTA with AUS.

      (where I live, Australia is a bit of a dumping ground for excess production of Italian tinned tomatoes and Spanish olive oi

      • Re:Problem? (Score:4, Informative)

        by able1234au ( 995975 ) on Monday November 24, 2014 @03:03AM (#48447323)

        There is no Northern Hemisphere "bias". It is just that there is more land in the northern hemisphere and more cropland. So it influences the seasonal cycle more. There would be no CO2 advantage to moving the crops from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere. It would be nett neutral.

        • The average amount of CO2 would be about the same, but if there were greater parity of crops between the hemispheres, there would be less of a swing. That might be advantageous if there are negative effects to a big swing such as health problems or extreme weather (although I have no idea if there are any such ill effects).
    • Re:Problem? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by blind biker ( 1066130 ) on Monday November 24, 2014 @03:21AM (#48447359) Journal

      In this context, "problem" was meant as in "mathematical problem", not environmental.

    • by Khyber ( 864651 )

      You're forgetting about the carbon-intensive resources that go into production and harvesting and processing.

      Fuel-sucking harvesters being the first thing that comes to mind. Those emit a lot of carbon compared to what they're harvesting.

    • by dywolf ( 2673597 )

      They didnt say that this is a problem.
      What they said is "human agriculture production has changed the CO2 cycle, causing higher highs and lower lows in the fluctuation of CO2 levels over the course of a year."
      Which makes sense. Vast swaths of land are forced to be much more biologically active than they otherwise would be.
      And it throws yet more cold water on the notion of "we can't affect the planet."

    • The problem I see is some science hack, Ryan Wallace, writes some incoherent drivel, seemingly against convetional wisdom and doesn't reference the either the paper, or the press release on the research. We have no clue whether they are talking about CO2 from the decay of the corn stover left in the fields, or some mysterious CO2 release in the plants respiration.

  • CO2 is the cause of global warming/climate change.
  • You know plants have a cycle of taking in and releasing CO2.
    You know agriculture planting harvest lines up the cycle for a large amount plant matter.
    You see a signal in your data.

    I am shocked. /sarcasm

    • Yeah it would be better to just take it on faith. Think of the money you'd save! You're always right, no need to check, deductive logic all the way!

      • Why don't you give yourself a goldstar for being able to count while you are at it.
        Here's some other things you can do to "Show the power of modeling"

        Drop dye into water to show it causes it to be colored.

        Verify that matter is neither created nor destroyed by combining substances in a container.

        Show that adding two and two actually gives a result of 4.

      • And it's a proven model ! The Vatican used it for centuries !

  • by Kaenneth ( 82978 ) on Monday November 24, 2014 @12:30AM (#48447003) Homepage Journal

    The political influence of big corn is killing us; HFCS, Corn for fuel instead of growing food, lack of biodiversity... we should be growing a fraction of the corn we do.

    • Corn? HFCS was the thing to be outraged about last decade. We're on to the new thing now, man. It's wheat! All that gluten is a real boogeyman! In fact, let's get rid of carbs altogether, they never did anyone any good.
  • CO2 emissions increase in the northern hemisphere winter as everyone turns on their heaters. (which are powered by fossil fuels)

    • by itzly ( 3699663 )
      That's only half the explanation. You also need to explain why CO2 goes back down in the summer.
  • However, the last 50 years has seen the size of this swing has increase by as 50%, for reasons that aren't fully understood. "

    The fact we've cut 40% of the worlds trees down in the past 100 years are nothing to do with this. What does NASA know anyway?

    Who writes this stuff?

    Plants producing net CO2 gain has to be the the most asinine thing I've ever read about Co2.

    Contraindication: http://www.liebertpub.com/MCon... [liebertpub.com]

    • Best to read the source article http://www.nature.com/nature/j... [nature.com]

      They are looking at the seasonal swing of CO2, it goes down in Summer and up in Winter. They are not saying it causes a net CO2 gain. It agrees with the book chapter you linked.

      Cutting down trees which grow slowly and only few die each year, does increase the seasonal swing as you replace them by fast growing plants that die off every year.

      • by jbengt ( 874751 )
        I would mod you up, but I've already posted.
        From your link:

        The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) record displays a prominent seasonal cycle that arises mainly from changes in vegetation growth and the corresponding CO2 uptake during the boreal spring and summer growing seasons and CO2 release during the autumn and winter seasons

        Using a terrestrial carbon cycle model that takes into account high-yield cultivars, fertilizer use and irrigation, we find that the long-term increase in CO2 seasonal amplitude arise

  • "What it points to" is that we know slightly more than "fuck all" about the climate, so the cowboys who think we should get started on megaengineering projects because we think that they'll stave off or reverse global warming...should be thrown right into straitjackets.

    • by itzly ( 3699663 )
      Burning fossil fuels at the current rate is also a mega-engineering project.
    • "What it points to" is that we know slightly more than "fuck all" about the climate

      Perhaps you don't. Ignorance on your part doesn't imply the rest of us are ignorant. In any way.

  • the last 50 years has seen the size of this swing has increase by as 50%

    I'd run this through babelfish, but I can't work out what language it's supposed to be.

    • by Rashdot ( 845549 )

      That sentence has a 100% increase in has.

  • More population requires more crops be grown which causes a disturbance in the CO2 cycle. It comes back to the same thing as almost all our other woes. Allowing people to reproduce irresponsably is our downfall. If we had half the population we now have we would have half the pollution, half the energy demands, half the urban sprawl, and half of just about every other problem that we currently face. No just why does the nation and the world avoid confronting the real cause of our w
  • First, at what time of year are CO2 levels being measured for use in writing environmental research papers (and dictating policy)? Second, if corn is such a big contributor, then corn ethanol is adding to CO2 levels not reducing them. Third, by pissing away water on bait fish in California instead of allowing farms to grow CO2-inhaling crops (of plant types that aren't completely cut down each harvest), we are effectively adding to CO2 levels.

    • by itzly ( 3699663 )

      First, at what time of year are CO2 levels being measured for use in writing environmental research papers (and dictating policy)?

      They just take the yearly average. And the corn isn't adding to (average) CO2 levels, it's just adding a little bit of extra seasonal swings to it.

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