Each year, the planet balances its budget. The carbon dioxide absorbed by plants in the spring and summer as they convert solar energy into food is released back to the atmosphere in autumn and winter. Levels of the greenhouse gas fall, only to rise again.
But the budget has gotten bigger. Over the last five decades, the magnitude of this rise and fall has grown nearly 50 percent in the Northern Hemisphere, as the amount of the greenhouse gas taken in and released has increased. Now, new research shows that humans and their crops have a lot to do with it, highlighting the profound impact people have on the Earth's atmosphere.
In a study published Wednesday, Nov. 19, in Nature, scientists at Boston University, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and McGill University show that a steep rise in the productivity of crops grown for food accounts for as much as 25 percent of the increase in this carbon dioxide (CO2) seasonality.
It's not that crops are adding more CO2 to the atmosphere; rather, if crops are like a sponge for CO2, the sponge has simply gotten bigger and can hold and release more of the gas.
With global food productivity expected to double over the next 50 years, the researchers say the findings should be used to improve climate models and better understand the atmospheric CO2 buffering capacity of ecosystems, particularly as climate change may continue to perturb the greenhouse gas budget.
"This is another piece of evidence suggesting that when we (humans) do things at a large scale, we have the ability to greatly influence the composition of the atmosphere," says UW-Madison's Chris Kucharik, a co-author of the study and professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Department of Agronomy and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
Since the 1960s in the Northern Hemisphere, maize (corn), wheat, rice and soybeans have seen a 240 percent spike in production, particularly concentrated in the midwestern U.S. and in Northern China, the study found.
But until this point, scientists missed the connection between crops and the CO2 seasonality increase.
"Global climate models don't represent the important details of agroecosystems and their management very well," says Kucharik.
It was fall 2013 when the study's lead authors at Boston University approached the UW-Madison scientist and asked him to lend his agricultural land management, carbon cycling and agricultural technology expertise to their examination of the cycle.
Kucharik helped the team determine how the amount of carbon absorbed by the leaves, stems, roots and food-portion of crops may have changed over time. He helped ensure the methodology the team used properly represented agricultural lands and the management practices that drive changes in the carbon balance.
The study found that, while the area of farmed land has not significantly increased, the production efficiency of that land has. Intensive agricultural management over the last 50 years has had a profound impact.
Kucharik attributes this to improvements in plant breeding, post-World War II fertilization innovations, irrigation and other human-powered technologies.
"You get more bang for your buck, more crop per drop," he says.
Cropland makes up just six percent of the vegetated, or green, area of the Northern Hemisphere and yet, it is a dominant contributor to the 50 percent increase in the CO2 seasonality cycle. This, despite the fact that forests and grasslands have also been more productive as the planet has warmed and growing seasons have lengthened.
"That's a very large, significant contribution, and 2/3 of that contribution is attributed to corn," says Kucharik. "Corn once again is king, this time demonstrating its strong influence on the seasonal cycle of atmospheric CO2."
Earlier work at UW-Madison enabled the research team to make the necessary calculations to incorporate agriculture into the new modeling approach, Kucharik says.
"The person that led the charge was Navin Ramankutty at SAGE (the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment), in Jon Foley's group in the late '90s and early 2000s," says Kucharik. "Those first global maps of agricultural land use over time came out of SAGE and the Nelson Institute."
Ramankutty, a co-author of the study, is now a geography professor at the University of British Columbia while Foley, not an author on the study, is now the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences.
CONTACT: Chris Kucharik, 608-890-3021, firstname.lastname@example.org
--Kelly April Tyrrell, email@example.com, 608-262-9772
Chris Kucharik | EurekAlert!
Preservation of floodplains is flood protection
27.09.2017 | Technische Universität München
Conservationists are sounding the alarm: parrots much more threatened than assumed
15.09.2017 | Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
18.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
18.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
18.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy