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Greenhouse gas might green up the desert


Weizmann Institute study suggests that rising carbon dioxide levels might cause forests to spread into dry environments

Missing: around 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas charged with global warming. Every year, industry releases about 22 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And every year, when scientists measure the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it doesn’t add up – about half goes missing. Figuring in the amount that could be soaked up by oceans, some 7 billion tons still remain unaccounted for. Now, a study conducted at the edge of Israel’s Negev Desert has come up with what might be a piece of the puzzle.

A group of scientists headed by Prof. Dan Yakir of the Weizmann Institute’s Environmental Sciences and Energy Department found that the Yatir forest, planted at the edge of the Negev Desert 35 years ago, is expanding at an unexpected rate. The findings, published in the current issue of Global Change Biology, suggest that forests in other parts of the globe could also be expanding into arid lands, absorbing carbon dioxide in the process.

The Negev research station is the most arid site in a worldwide network (FluxNet) established by scientists to investigate carbon dioxide absorption by plants.

The Weizmann team found, to its surprise, that the Yatir forest is a substantial “sink” (CO2-absorbing site): its absorbing efficiency is similar to that of many of its counterparts in more fertile lands. These results were unexpected since forests in dry regions are considered to develop very slowly, if at all, and thus are not expected to soak up much carbon dioxide (the more rapidly the forest develops the more carbon dioxide it needs, since carbon dioxide drives the production of sugars). However, the Yatir forest is growing at a relatively quick pace, and is even expanding further into the desert.

Why would a forest grow so well on arid land, countering all expectations (“It wouldn’t have even been planted there had scientists been consulted,” says Yakir)? The answer, the team suggests, might be found in the way plants address one of their eternal dilemmas. Plants need carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, which leads to the production of sugars. But to obtain it, they must open pores in their leaves and consequently lose large quantities of water to evaporation. The plant must decide which it needs more: water or carbon dioxide. Yakir suggests that the 30 percent increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the start of the industrial revolution eases the plant’s dilemma. Under such conditions, the plant doesn’t have to fully open the pores for carbon dioxide to seep in – a relatively small opening is sufficient. Consequently, less water escapes the plant’s pores. This efficient water preservation technique keeps moisture in the ground, allowing forests to grow in areas that previously were too dry.

The scientists hope the study will help identify new arable lands and counter desertification trends in vulnerable regions.

The findings could provide insights into the “missing carbon dioxide” riddle, uncovering an unexpected type of sink. Deciphering the atmospheric carbon dioxide riddle is critical since the rise in the concentrations of this greenhouse gas is suspected of driving global warming and its resulting climate changes. Tracking down carbon dioxide sinks could help scientists better assess how long such absorption might continue and lead to the development of efficient methods to take up carbon dioxide.

The Yatir forest was planted by Keren Kayameth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. The study was supported by the European Union, the Israel Science Foundation, the Israel Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport, and the Ministry of Environment.

Prof. Yakir’s research is supported by the Avron-Wilstaetter Minerva Center for Research in Photosynthesis, the Philip M. Klutznick Fund, Minerva Stiftung Gesellschaft fuer die Forschung m.b.H., estate of the late Jeannette Salomons, the Netherlands and Sussman Family Center for the Study of Environmental Sciences.

The Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world’s foremost centers of scientific research and graduate study. Its 2,500 scientists, students, technicians, and engineers pursue basic research in the quest for knowledge and the enhancement of humanity. New ways of fighting disease and hunger, protecting the environment, and harnessing alternative sources of energy are high priorities at Weizmann.

Alex Smith | EurekAlert!
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