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Earth Science Technology

Earth's Plants Are Countering Some of the Effects of Climate Change (economist.com) 186

A new study published in Nature Communications has found that Earth's plant life between 2002 and 2014 has absorbed so much carbon dioxide that the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere has slowed down, despite humans pumping out more CO2 than ever before. The study also found that between 1982 and 2009, "about 18m square kilometers of new vegetation had sprouted on Earth's surface, an area roughly twice the size of the United States." The Economist reports: In 2014 humans pumped about 35.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air. That figure has been climbing sharply since the middle of the 20th century, when only about 6 billion tons a year were emitted. As a consequence, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been rising too, from about 311 parts per million (ppm) in 1950 to just over 400 in 2015. Yet the rate at which it is rising seems to have slowed since the turn of the century. According to Dr Keenan, between 1959 and 1989 the rate at which CO2 levels were growing rose from 0.75ppm per year to 1.86. Since 2002, though, it has barely budged. In other words, although humans are pumping out more CO2 than ever, less of it than you might expect is lingering in the air. Filling the atmosphere with CO2 is a bit like filling a bath without a plug: the level will rise only if more water is coming out of the taps than is escaping down the drain. Climate scientists call the processes which remove CO2 from the air "sinks." The oceans are one such sink. Photosynthesis by plants is another: carbon dioxide is converted, with the help of water and light energy from the sun, into sugars, which are used to make more plant matter, locking the carbon away in wood and leaves. Towards the end of the 20th century around 50% of the CO2 emitted by humans each year was removed from the atmosphere this way. Now that number seems closer to 60%. Earth's carbon sinks seem to have become more effective, but the precise details are still unclear. Using a mix of ground and atmospheric observations, satellite measurements and computer modeling, Dr Keenan and his colleagues have concluded that faster-growing land plants are the chief reason. That makes sense: as CO2 concentrations rise, photosynthesis speeds up. Studies conducted in greenhouses have found that plants can photosynthesis up to 40% faster when concentrations of CO2 are between 475 and 600ppm.
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Earth's Plants Are Countering Some of the Effects of Climate Change

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  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:06PM (#53269121)
    good for us
    • Re:good for them (Score:5, Informative)

      by Layzej ( 1976930 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:09PM (#53269127)
      That slowdown is on the second derivative. The acceleration has slowed if the paper is right. Here's what that looks like: http://woodfortrees.org/plot/e... [woodfortrees.org] . The red curve is CO2.
      • Re: good for them (Score:4, Interesting)

        by saloomy ( 2817221 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @11:25PM (#53269345)
        This makes sense. Photosynthesis is a biochemical process. So increasing the inputs (CO2 being one) should increase the outputs. The higher concentrations should also increase the rate of reaction. It would seem earths CO2 levels should never get above a certain threshold given the balancing nature of this reaction rate.
        • , as your parent post linked, we've climbed off the hockey stick hock and now rocketing at maximum velocity toward oblivion.

        • As usual, it's all a matter of constants in the dynamic system. Unfortunately, those constants are still not good for us.
        • by reboot246 ( 623534 ) on Saturday November 12, 2016 @10:06AM (#53270947) Homepage
          I just received this text:

          That's how I planned for it to work.
          ~God
        • by pipingguy ( 566974 ) on Saturday November 12, 2016 @10:24AM (#53270993)
          Shhhh! You're threatening taxpayer funding for #ClimateChange!
          • by jmv ( 93421 )

            Yeah, if only we could stop all these climate scientists who are making billions worth of profit by pretending we're about to completely mess up the climate.

          • RTFA (Score:4, Informative)

            by im_thatoneguy ( 819432 ) on Sunday November 13, 2016 @08:56AM (#53275299)

            The new plant life in the headline is from Global Warming melting ice. So you have to acknowledge AGW exists if you recognize that an area "twice the size of the US" has melted.

            Also if you had RTFA you would have noted that the world can warm without increasing CO2. The plants themselves absorb heat unlike snow and the melting tundra also releases methane, a greenhouse gas substantially more effective at retaining heat than even CO2.

            This is only a source of a short term blip on one specific statistic.

        • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

          So it if you want to take it all the way. Create a global food bank, in the deserts of Australia, using desalinated water. Other countries can invest in that food bank, to pay for that development, to give them a reliable source of food, should their own be disrupted and of course you would then have millions of square kilometres of high density plant growth. Plus water being held by the plants and post irrigation water going into the ground table and turning high radiant heat deserts(more than one) into m

      • Which has been evident for quite some time is...

        WHY is this not being allowed for in predictive models? Why should this is new to the people working on this?

        We are regularly told how old the knowledge that atmospheric CO2 increases heat trapping is (and that is true).
        And yet, models do not allow for increased plant growth rates, and increased total living biomass thanks to increased rain, increased average temperature, and increased CO2... The effects of those on plant grows is even older...

        The easy assumpt

        • The easy assumption is because those mitigate the models significantly

          Or maybe it's not that significant? It may or may not matter for the achievability of the temperature targets. Or, as the article notes, the growth may actually offset its CO2-absorbing benefits by means of such things as adverse albedo changes. "The easy assumption" is actually that this may not have been included simply for its negligible overall impact and/or lower predictability, and that the people in question know why they didn't include it.

    • good for us

      I'm not so sure that this will work out to be good for us. With an abundance of food, plants will evolve, become intelligent and eventually enslave humans to produce more CO2 for them.

      The plant overlord future isn't looking very "rosy" any more, is it . . . ?

  • by pubwvj ( 1045960 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:08PM (#53269125)

    Good for my gardens, my forest, my pastures.

    Oh, wait, all of them are sequestering carbon to the tune of 1.4 to 2.7 tons of carbon a year. Hmm... This could be counter productive. The plants might use up all that carbon dioxide. Better startup your SUVs to make up for this and keep the farms flourishing!

  • Not permanent (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jeremi ( 14640 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:18PM (#53269153) Homepage

    Photosynthesis by plants is another: carbon dioxide is converted, with the help of water and light energy from the sun, into sugars, which are used to make more plant matter, locking the carbon away in wood and leaves.

    ... until the plant dies, and wood/leaves either burn or rot, at which point the CO2 is released into the atmosphere again.

    We'll also need some way of getting the plant material back under the ground if we want to keep the CO2 permanently out of the atmosphere. (yes, I realize that does happen, as that's where all the coal deposits came from, etc, but I do wonder what percentage of the new plants will end up that way)

    • Photosynthesis by plants is another: carbon dioxide is converted, with the help of water and light energy from the sun, into sugars, which are used to make more plant matter, locking the carbon away in wood and leaves.

      ... until the plant dies, and wood/leaves either burn or rot, at which point the CO2 is released into the atmosphere again.

      We'll also need some way of getting the plant material back under the ground if we want to keep the CO2 permanently out of the atmosphere. (yes, I realize that does happen, as that's where all the coal deposits came from, etc, but I do wonder what percentage of the new plants will end up that way)

      I've wondered whether we should start putting carbon back into the ground, and whether this is feasible.

      For example, suppose we harvested unused plant products (wood, silage, whatever), ground them into a slurry, and pumped them back into old oil wells.

      This presupposes that we have transitioned to renewable energy, and that extra energy for such endeavourers is available. It looks like we're on the road to doing that - a theoretical factory getting its power from solar panels could make more panels than it

      • Re:Sequestering (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:50PM (#53269271)

        There's an easier and more useful method - make biochar out of it. Charcoal is far more stable than biomatter, and makes the soil more fertile at the same time, boosting future growth.

        • I'm not sure it makes sense to dig up coal, burn it, then capture the CO2 with plants, turn that into biochar and bury it. It would be smarter to leave the coal in the ground, and build some more solar panels instead.
          • This presupposes that we have transitioned to renewable energy, and that extra energy for such endeavourers is available. It looks like we're on the road to doing that - a theoretical factory getting its power from solar panels could make more panels than it needs for replacement, and there's a lot of opportunity for rooftop solar and panels in other places.

            Assuming we can afford some extra solar panels and that we have reasonable automation, could pumping excess plant matter back into the ground help?

            Unless you use renewable energy to make the biochar. You know, like what this thread is about.

      • Yes, we can if we so choose put carbon back into the ground. One particular example is bio-char, where biomass is converted to charcoal and ploughed into fields as a soil improvement. I'm not entirely convinced as to the benefits of this, but it would certainly put carbon into the ground.

      • by wasted ( 94866 )

        I've wondered whether we should start putting carbon back into the ground, and whether this is feasible.

        If we don't recycle plastics that aren't biodegradable, and they end up in a landfill, isn't that putting carbon back into the ground?

      • Um, then replace the fertilizer with what? Petroleum based fertilizer?

        Not a good idea.
    • Not quite right (Score:5, Insightful)

      by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:43PM (#53269251)

      Yes plants release much of the CO2 they absorb back into the atmosphere - but most of it is stored in the very slowly decomposing parts of the plant, and some will remain in the soil.

      However - over time as plants die new plants grow to replace them, basically making the net CO2 a slow reduction from the amount not released when dead... but on top of that as the Earth warms it will encourage more growth and therefore greater ongoing CO2 sequestration in living plants, and that means a greater ongoing reduction of CO2 from CO2 that remains in the soil.

      What is missing from the equation are estimates of how much greater the biomass will become with higher temperatures and more CO2 (which greatly encourages plant growth). I don't know I'veever seen that factored in, and to me if nothing else figured in, that absolutely puts the breaks on any kind of runaway warming scenario from CO2 - the only reason we were supposed to be scared of CO2 to begin with. The Earth (and people) can handle a 2-4C warming just fine, and will in fact thrive because of it.

      I wish people would just get past the voodoo nonsense that CO2 is the problem, when real pollution is the danger because it could affect plant life in the negative instead of the positive. Luckily much greater adoption of solar energy is inevitable now so even worries about future pollution are reduced, on top of that self-driving cars mean much more efficient use of a vehicles engine so that too leads to an automatic future reduction in real pollution.

      It may be that we might yet escape the next ice age cycle if we can really boost the global temperature enough, though I'm doubtful we can really break free of a cycle that is so fundamental.

    • I read recently that trees and woody plants evolved a long long time before bacteria evolved that could digest the wood. If the coal and oil deposits were created in an environment without that bacteria, then when we run out of oil, we will have very little oil left and more won't be made even if you waited millions of years. Imagine if a future intelligent species (likely not mammalian species either) examines the fossil record of its time and learns that we lived hundreds of millions of years ago in a ti
      • by khallow ( 566160 )

        I read recently that trees and woody plants evolved a long long time before bacteria evolved that could digest the wood.

        The obvious rebuttal is that it's just not that hard to digest wood, it's just slow. My view is that even modern bacteria wouldn't have been able to keep up with the amount of biomatter being deposited. What has changed is that for the most part, modern plants don't deposit enough biomatter to cause this issue.

      • When you talk about the fossil record, the principle is that the newer stuff is always on top. It would be impossible to determine that the oil (deposited long ago) suddenly went missing (at a later date); it's either there or it's not.

        Furthermore, even modern extraction techniques leave more than half the oil behind, so that no oil deposit completely disappears.

    • Fundamentally, this is it. There's only one way that we add carbon to the atmosphere - digging it up from the ground. There's only one way to take it away - put it back in the ground.

      • by skids ( 119237 )

        Well, technically we could freeze it and sink it to the bottom of the ocean in a spot that's likely to keep it that way, or break it down and recombine it into a solid compound, but considering the agricultural side-benefits, burying it makes a hell of a lot more sense.

    • You do realise that when a plant dies and rots (burns? really? that is a tiny TINY proportion) then the majority of the carbon in it ends up in soil, not as a gas, right?

      I know you probably dont try this much in your inner city apartment, but try spending a bit of time in the real works.
      This is exactly where SOIL comes from. I can guarantee you that if you put a box of lawn clippings on the ground somewhere, they do not evaporate into CO2.

      There is of course some gas release (and a number of gasses), however

    • Can't we make rockets out of wood and launch them into space? Problem solved!
  • Studies conducted in greenhouses have found that plants can photosynthesis up to 40% faster when concentrations of CO2 are between 475 and 600ppm.

    That's nice. That's not sustainable [350.org], though. It's quite irrelevant what the plants will do under those conditions if we're well and rightly fucked before we even get there. It's also not universal. Some plants can do that. Some plants can't; they are already at or near their limits.

    • by FlyHelicopters ( 1540845 ) on Saturday November 12, 2016 @12:15AM (#53269567)

      That's nice. That's not sustainable, though.

      The 350.org people are not living in reality, if they are your source of info, then you're just living in fantasy land.

      Quote from your link:

      âoeIf humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from [current levels] to at most 350 ppm.â

      There is zero chance of that happening in the next 100 years, none, ziltch... It will hit 500 ppm long before it has a chance to stop climbing... it probably will hit 600 ppm before the end of this century...

      Those people are insane. Notice they don't actually state what will be required to do that, they just say "conserve and stop burning stuff", but they never say HOW MUCH.

      Do you know why? Because they know the truth, they know that if they actually publish the number, they'll get ignored.

      The number HAS been published... the Western world has to cut 80% of its power consumption and the developing world 60% of its power consumption, and the whole planet has just 32 years to do it.

      Now before you scream solar and wind, read the above sentence, then read it again, because I'm 99% sure you won't read it correctly the first few times.

      There is zero chance of that happening.

      • The number HAS been published... the Western world has to cut 80% of its power consumption and the developing world 60% of its power consumption, and the whole planet has just 32 years to do it.

        Now before you scream solar and wind, read the above sentence, then read it again, because I'm 99% sure you won't read it correctly the first few times.

        There is zero chance of that happening.

        Well, I'd say well-north of zero. An all-out thermonuclear/chemical/biological war would probably do nicely.

        s/ Of course there will be naysayers whining their bleeding-heart nonsense about the cure being worse than the disease and you can't wipe out humanity to save the Earth, but isn't it humans that are the cause of all the Earths' problems in the first place and AGW simply another proof that Earth should be sanitized and made human-free?

        Humans are so arrogant that many think that just because their speci

        • by bytesex ( 112972 )

          You don't 'save the earth' by stopping, or slowing, global warming. The earth will be just fine if we don't. A lot of life will be just fine. In fact, a lot of humans might be just fine. So a thermo-nuclear war would be defying the purpose a bit.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    it didn't take long for spin to make the climate emergency less dangerous. Silly rabbits

  • Oceans (Score:5, Interesting)

    by manu0601 ( 2221348 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:28PM (#53269195)

    Unfortunately, photosynthesis is not the only CO2 sink, as noted in the article: Oceans also take their share, and that cause their pH to drop, which in turns kills coral, and make coasts more vulnerable to erosion.

    • I'm actually much more worried about ocean acidification than "climate change" which has been absurdly exaggerated as mere weather events blamed on it.

      • Same. Climate change on land has some serious potential effects on species that cannot adapt quickly enough and will cause some long-term issues with human habitation (some parts of the planet near the equator might become uninhabitable due to temperature or storm severity), but ocean acidification has the potential to wreck entire ecosystems.

        Too low pH in the ocean and sudden crustaceans can't make shells, and that's a MAJOR problem - and not just for people.

        • Climate change (...) will cause some long-term issues with human habitation

          I am actually very worried about impact on agriculture. Climate change will make some countries production tank, causing deaths, economical crisis, political instabilities, wars and migrations. And we already saw some instance of such trouble in the middle east.

          • There was another similar major drought in 1804 that lasted 14 years. Tree rings suggest this present one is the worst in 900 years but even so it is said that "climate change partially contributes to it", in other words that it is also partly cyclical and expected. What if other areas have a bounty, because "carbon dioxide, it's what plants crave"?

            • That's no comfort to where I live where rainfall has followed a downward trend from 40 years ago, statistically according to the city's rain gage - less frequent rains in summer and drier winters.

              Now maybe that's "cyclical", or part of a long term scenario where the rain falls elsewhere.

              Either way, I'm developing a green thumb and wondering if a wetter location would better suit my vegie patch in retirement!

    • Wrong (Score:5, Funny)

      by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:46PM (#53269263)

      Coral flourishes in lower pH conditions [phys.org], and the ocean is used to higher levels at times that it will ever see from atmospheric CO2.

      • And why are all scientists say the opposite then and corals are dyeing all over on the planet?

  • A few points. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by burtosis ( 1124179 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:29PM (#53269197)
    Somewhat misleading summary. CO2 only increases growth substantially when nutrients and sunlight are also in abundant supply. It does not affect all plant life equally. So not all areas will see the benefit of increased growth. Also as others have mentioned the mass of CO2 stored in plant mass is important but unless that mass keeps increasing quickly without dying out then it can't keep up with the supply. As it decomposes it is released back into the atmosphere.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Suck it climate alarmists.

  • The point (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @10:50PM (#53269275)

    The fact that the CO2 level in the atmosphere has been growing more slowly than expected, based on how much CO2 is being created due to human activity, is not new knowledge. We've known that's the case for several decades... but identifying the "sink" has been problematic. For a long while it was assumed to be the oceans, but that was shown not to be true back around 1990-ish.

    It looks like this paper is claiming to have at least partially identified the missing sink.

    • The fact that the CO2 level in the atmosphere has been growing more slowly than expected, based on how much CO2 is being created due to human activity, is not new knowledge. We've known that's the case for several decades... but identifying the "sink" has been problematic.

      Seems obvious to me and I called it out a while ago. A "Greenhouse effect" would do exactly what greenhouses were designed for, to make plants grow better. More plants means more CO2 consumption.

  • Slowing down does not mean reduction. Furthermore it is important to know that most plant live on land reduce their CO2 intake at certain higher levels of CO2 by closing their stomas. This results in less water vapor in the air reducing the reflectiveness of the atmosphere resulting in more energy intake.

  • Plants actually benefit from CO2

    I may have heard this someplace before.

  • by Snotnose ( 212196 ) on Friday November 11, 2016 @11:59PM (#53269499)
    Back in the 70s a friend had a couple pot plants growing in his closet. He had a grow light and everything. About once a week we'd walk to the local Baskins Robbins, where they would give us a 1-2 lb chunk of dry ice. Mike would suspend this chunk some 3 feet over his plants, his plants seemed to love the hell out of it (hard to tell, they don't purr, or roll over for a belly rub, or anything, they just grow faster).

    / RIP Mike
    // Died 5/15 of Lou Gehrig's disease
    /// A much better person than I am
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      (hard to tell, they don't purr, or roll over for a belly rub, or anything, they just grow faster).

      If a cat rolls over for a belly rub it's a damn trap!

  • Translation (Score:2, Troll)

    by Orgasmatron ( 8103 )

    Allow me to translate this into English.

    We climate "scientists" haven't even mastered the basics of our field, but we are getting better. We think that we are close to plugging a gigantic fucking hole in our ignorance. Just because we can't explain the past or the present yet doesn't stop us from being 100% sure about the future.

  • Wouldn't you expect O2 levels to go up in response to all that new plant life photosynthesizing?

  • So maybe that explains why the blackberry vines seemed so aggressive this year.

  • No shit, Sherlock! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by blindseer ( 891256 ) <blindseer@@@earthlink...net> on Saturday November 12, 2016 @02:08AM (#53269969)

    This is not news to people that have paid attention to the science of global warming. As much as the AGW alarmists scream about "science" you'd think that they'd stop screaming once in a while and do some actual science. But then if they had then they wouldn't be AGW alarmists.

    The correlation between plant growth and CO2 concentration is not news to anyone that has even minimal knowledge of biology. CO2 is plant food, if you make more food available to them they tend to grow faster, stronger, and higher. It should be only a small leap in logic that natural plant growth will place a limit on the speed in which CO2 concentrations can grow and how high those concentrations can get.

    What is finally making the AGW types pay attention to the science is that we haven't seen any real warming for two decades. What we'll see next is some articles about scientists noticed that the recent sea level rise has been happening for a very long time and at a rate that has been relatively constant for centuries.

    I will stop just short of calling AGW a hoax because everyone involved knows very little on how the climate works. What I am quite certain about is that people have been using AGW as an excuse to grow government power and/or personally enrich themselves with "fixes" to AGW that are hoaxes.

    A bad car analogy is having car troubles and focusing on only the left rear tire valve stem. With all the complexities to the climate it is madness to attribute any climate changes to only CO2 produced from human fossil fuel consumption. It is then further madness to not recognize the natural systems that have kept this system stable for so long and how that might interact with that increased CO2 output.

    • The correlation between plant growth and CO2 concentration is not news to anyone that has even minimal knowledge of biology.

      That's right. And anyone who has even slightly more than a minimal knowledge of plant biology also knows that most plants can't make use of much more CO2 than they already get on a daily basis. The only way plants make use of CO2 is photosynthesis. Most of them have evolved to make efficient use of the amount of CO2 we have in our atmosphere and the amount of sunlight they tend to receive. But the climate is changing faster than plants can evolve, which for example is why we're seeing this pine dieoff in Ca

  • IMHO the environmental activist community dropped the ball after Rain Forest preservation was the #1 agenda topic in the 1990s. In addition to being a carbon sink, the forests are the habitat for most threatened species. I was always lukewarm to Al Gore and 350.org for that political reason, they lost a lot of activist invested collateral.
    • IMHO the environmental activist community dropped the ball after Rain Forest preservation was the #1 agenda topic in the 1990s.

      Could you elaborate? They were right. You're not making much sense. That the world failed to listen to them is not their fault. Did you want them to blow everything up, or what?

  • I wonder if this is why I seem to have much worse allergies over the past 10-15 years, more weeds. A win for Flonase I suppose.
  • No matter your position on AGW, I think the good thing about this paper is that it shows we can make very real consumer decisions to impact the rate of global warming. It seems simplistic however the choice of a piece of fruit over a bag of chips impacts the amount of palm oil consumed for food products, which slows down the rate of deforestation in tropical regions for palm oil production, which slows the acceleration of global warming.

    The salient observations from this study are:

    highlights the need to p

  • That is very very little. Could it be that SI-challenged writers confused "milli" and "Mega" suffixes, again, and they actually mean 18,000,000 (km)^2, rather than 0.018 (km)^2?

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