Trees Help offset rising CO2 levels

Never underestimate the power of nature especially that of plants. I was heartened this week to read about a study recently published by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory regarding the increased rate that the earth’s vegetation is absorbing human-induced CO2.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASanta Cruz Mountains looking towards Monterey Bay

When I was a kid my father used to work at the Berkeley Lab. As a welder during the 50’s I remember him coming home and tell me about working on the bevatron which was the state of the art atom-smasher being built there. The goal of Berkeley Lab which Dad used to call The Radiation Lab has always been to bring science solutions to the world.

A new study published in this month’s Berkeley Lab newsletter, has found that plants are grabbing more carbon from the air than in previous decades. The study is based on extensive ground and atmospheric observations, satellite measurements of vegetation and computer modeling.

“To be clear, human activity continues to emit increasing amounts of carbon”, the study explains but plants have slowed the rate of increase in the atmosphere by absorbing more. “It’s a kind of snowball effect: as the carbon levels rise in the atmosphere, photosynthesis activity flourishes and plant take in more carbon, sparking more plant growth, more photosynthesis and more carbon uptake.”

Another player was identified in the study. Plant respiration, a process in which plants use oxygen and produce CO2, did not increase as quickly as photosynthesis in recent years. This is because plant respiration is sensitive to temperature. The study showed that between 2002 and 2014, plants took in more CO2 through photosynthesis but did not “exhale’ more CO2 into the atmosphere through respiration.

We what does this all mean? “This highlights the need to identify and protect ecosystems where the carbon sink is growing rapidly,” says Trevor Keenan, a research scientist and author of the paper. “Unfortunately, this increase in the carbon sink is nowhere near enough to stop climate change. We don’t know where the carbon sink is increasing the most, how long this increase will last, or what it means for the future of Earth’s climate.”

Still I’m hopeful that the earth will heal itself if given the chance and we can thank plants including the humble houseplant for helping offset increasing levels of CO2 from fossil fuel emissions.

Berkeley Lab is at the forefront of research in the world of science. Earlier this month they hosted a three day forum to study and share information about how plants transport water from their roots up through the stem and how they respond to stress such as drought. The new data will provide insight about how to better tend crops and other plants under stress and to improved understanding and forecasting for drought-related die-offs of trees and other plant species.

Also in the news at Berkeley Lab is the research the lab is doing in the search for an Ebola cure. Rather than using human or lab animals, a crystal isolated from the cells of a broccoli related plant called mouse-ear cress, provided the target related protein. Researchers have used this plant as a model species for studying cell activities and genetics since the mid-1940’s and in 2000 this plant’s genome was the very first plant genome to be sequenced. Quite an honor for another humble plant.

Let us be thankful for the plants we all love so much.