Climate: Is rising CO2 greening the world’s deserts?

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A May 2012 dust storm blows through the Middle East. Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

Study provides evidence for a carbon dioxide fertilization effect

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A new study of some arid regions — including the southwestern U.S. — suggests that the 14 percent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide sine the early 1980s has lead to an increase in green foliage in the Earth’s arid regions.

The study was led by Randall Donohue of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, who focused on the southwestern corner of North America, Australia’s outback, the Middle East, and some parts of Africa.

The team developed and applied a mathematical model to predict the extent of the carbon-dioxide fertilization effect. They then tested this prediction by studying satellite imagery and teasing out the influence of carbon dioxide on greening from other factors such as precipitation, air temperature, the amount of light, and land-use changes.

The team’s model predicted that foliage would increase by some 5 to 10 percent given the 14 percent increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration during the study period. The satellite data agreed, showing an 11 percent increase in foliage after adjusting the data for precipitation, yielding “strong support for our hypothesis,”according to the study.

“Lots of papers have shown an average increase in vegetation across the globe, and there is a lot of speculation about what’s causing that,” said Donohue of CSIRO’s Land and Water research division. “Up until this point, they’ve linked the greening to fairly obvious climatic variables, such as a rise in temperature where it is normally cold or a rise in rainfall where it is normally dry. Lots of those papers speculated about the CO2 effect, but it has been very difficult to prove.”

He and his colleagues present their findings in an article that has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Donohue said the team looked for signs of CO2 fertilization in arid areas because “satellites are very good at detecting changes in total leaf cover, and it is in warm, dry environments that the CO2 effect is expected to most influence leaf cover.” Leaf cover is the clue, he added, because “a leaf can extract more carbon from the air during photosynthesis, or lose less water to the air during photosynthesis, or both, due to elevated CO2.

Leaf cover in warm, wet places like tropical rainforests is already about as extensive as it can get and is unlikely to increase with higher CO2 concentrations. In warm, dry places, on the other hand, leaf cover is less complete, so plants there will make more leaves if they have enough water to do so.

“If elevated CO2 causes the water use of individual leaves to drop, plants will respond by increasing their total numbers of leaves, and this should be measurable from satellite,” Donohue explained.

To tease out the actual CO2 fertilization effect from other environmental factors in these regions, the researchers first averaged the greenness of each location across 3-year periods to account for changes in soil wetness and then grouped that greenness data from the different locations according to their amounts of precipitation. Then they identified the maximum amount of foliage each group could attain for a given precipitation, and tracked variations in maximum foliage over the course of 20 years. This allowed the scientists to remove the influence of precipitation and other climatic variations and recognize the long-term greening trend.

In addition to greening dry regions, the CO2 fertilization effect could switch the types of vegetation that dominate in those regions.

“Trees are re-invading grass lands, and this could quite possibly be related to the CO2 effect,” Donohue said. “Long lived woody plants are deep rooted and are likely to benefit more than grasses from an increase in CO2.”

“The effect of higher carbon dioxide levels on plant function is an important process that needs greater consideration,” said Donohue. “Even if nothing else in the climate changes as global CO2 levels rise, we will still see significant environmental changes because of the CO2 fertilization effect.”

This study was funded by CSIRO’s Sustainable Agriculture Flagship, Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, the Australian Research Council and Land & Water Australia.

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3 Responses

  1. […] the other 'greenhouse effect', is underwayNBCNews.com (blog)Voice of America -Summit County Citizens Voice -Science Recorderall 18 news […]

  2. […] is underwayNBCNews.com (blog)Arid Areas Greening Because of Higher CO2 LevelsVoice of AmericaSummit County Citizens Voice -Science Recorder -Science World Reportall 18 news […]

  3. […] is underwayNBCNews.com (blog)Arid Areas Greening Because of Higher CO2 LevelsVoice of AmericaSummit County Citizens Voice -Science Recorder -Science World Reportall 18 news […]

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