This has been a puzzle to climate scientists because leading models have indicated that over the past 24 million years geological conditions should have caused carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to plummet, possibly leading to runaway "icehouse" conditions. Now researchers writing in the July 2, 2009, Nature report on the missing piece of the puzzle – plants.
"Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been remarkably stable over the last 20 or 25 million years despite other changes in the environment," says co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. "We can look to land plants as the primary buffering agent that's held CO2 in such a narrow range during this time."
The research team, led by Mark Pagani of Yale University, found that the critical role of plants in the chemical breakdown and weathering of rocks and soil gave them a strong influence on carbon dioxide levels. It was a link that earlier studies had missed.
Over geologic time, large volumes of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere by volcanoes. This would cause CO2 to build up in the atmosphere were it not for countervailing geologic processes of sedimentation, which bury carbon-containing minerals in the crust, sequestering it from the atmosphere. The overall rate of sedimentation is controlled by the upthrust of mountains and the erosion and chemical breakdown of their rocks. The rise of the Andes, Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau, and mountain ranges in western North America over the past 25 million years would have been expected to have cause faster weathering and erosion, and therefore a faster burial of carbon drawn from the atmosphere. But the stability of carbon dioxide levels indicate that this didn't happen. Why not?
This is where the plants come in. "The rates of weathering reactions are largely controlled by plants. Their roots secrete acids that dissolve minerals, they hold soils, and they increase the amount of carbon dissolved in groundwater," says Caldeira. "But when levels of carbon dioxide get too low, the plants basically suffocate and the weathering slows down. That means less sediment is eroded from the uplands and less carbon can be buried. It's a negative feedback on the system that has kept carbon dioxide levels from dropping too low."
Extremely low carbon dioxide levels would have reduced the atmosphere's ability to retain heat, putting the planet into a deep freeze. "So you could say that by limiting the drawdown of CO2 by chemical weathering and sedimentation, plants saved the planet from freezing over," says Caldeira.
Could plants save us from rising carbon dioxide from human emissions and harmful greenhouse warming? No, says Caldeira. "We are releasing CO2 to the atmosphere about 100 times faster than all the volcanoes in the world put together. While these weathering processes will eventually remove the CO2 we are adding to the atmosphere, they act too slowly to help us avoid dangerous climate change. It will take hundreds of thousands of years for these rock weathering processes to remove our fossil fuel emissions from the atmosphere."
The Carnegie Institution (www.CIW.edu) has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research since 1902. It is a private, nonprofit organization with six research departments throughout the U.S. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science. The Department of Global Ecology, located in Stanford, California, was established in 2002 to help build the scientific foundations for a sustainable future. Its scientists conduct basic research on a wide range of large-scale environmental issues, including climate change, ocean acidification, biological invasions, and changes in biodiversity.
Ken Caldeira | EurekAlert!
Fast rising bedrock below West Antarctica reveals an extremely fluid Earth mantle
22.06.2018 | Technical University of Denmark
Polar ice may be softer than we thought
22.06.2018 | Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen
In a recent publication in the renowned journal Optica, scientists of Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology (Leibniz IPHT) in Jena showed that they can accurately control the optical properties of liquid-core fiber lasers and therefore their spectral band width by temperature and pressure tuning.
Already last year, the researchers provided experimental proof of a new dynamic of hybrid solitons– temporally and spectrally stationary light waves resulting...
Scientists from the University of Freiburg and the University of Basel identified a master regulator for bone regeneration. Prasad Shastri, Professor of...
Moving into its fourth decade, AchemAsia is setting out for new horizons: The International Expo and Innovation Forum for Sustainable Chemical Production will take place from 21-23 May 2019 in Shanghai, China. With an updated event profile, the eleventh edition focusses on topics that are especially relevant for the Chinese process industry, putting a strong emphasis on sustainability and innovation.
Founded in 1989 as a spin-off of ACHEMA to cater to the needs of China’s then developing industry, AchemAsia has since grown into a platform where the latest...
The BMBF-funded OWICELLS project was successfully completed with a final presentation at the BMW plant in Munich. The presentation demonstrated a Li-Fi communication with a mobile robot, while the robot carried out usual production processes (welding, moving and testing parts) in a 5x5m² production cell. The robust, optical wireless transmission is based on spatial diversity; in other words, data is sent and received simultaneously by several LEDs and several photodiodes. The system can transmit data at more than 100 Mbit/s and five milliseconds latency.
Modern production technologies in the automobile industry must become more flexible in order to fulfil individual customer requirements.
An international team of scientists has discovered a new way to transfer image information through multimodal fibers with almost no distortion - even if the fiber is bent. The results of the study, to which scientist from the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology Jena (Leibniz IPHT) contributed, were published on 6thJune in the highly-cited journal Physical Review Letters.
Endoscopes allow doctors to see into a patient’s body like through a keyhole. Typically, the images are transmitted via a bundle of several hundreds of optical...
13.06.2018 | Event News
08.06.2018 | Event News
05.06.2018 | Event News
25.06.2018 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation
22.06.2018 | Materials Sciences
22.06.2018 | Earth Sciences