The warming effects of climate change usually conjure up ideas of parched and barren landscapes broiling in a blazing sun, its heat amplified by greenhouse gases. But a study led by Princeton University researchers suggests that hotter nights may actually wield much greater influence over the planet's atmosphere as global temperatures rise -- and could eventually lead to more carbon flooding the atmosphere.
Since measurements began in 1959, nighttime temperatures in the tropics have had a strong influence over year-to-year shifts in the land's carbon-storage capacity, or "sink," the researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Earth's ecosystems absorb about a quarter of carbon from the atmosphere, and tropical forests account for about one-third of land-based plant productivity.
A study led by Princeton University researchers suggests that hotter nights may wield more influence than previously thought over the planet's atmosphere as global temperatures rise -- and could eventually lead to more carbon flooding the atmosphere. The researchers determined that warm nighttime temperatures, specifically in the tropics, lead plants to release more carbon through a process known as respiration. Average nighttime temperatures in tropical regions such as Manaus, Brazil, (above) have risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius since 1959. Further temperature increases risk turning Earth's land-based carbon-storage capacity, or sink, into a carbon source.
Credit: William Anderegg, Princeton Environmental Institute.
During the past 50 years, the land-based carbon sink's "interannual variability" has grown by 50 to 100 percent, the researchers found. The researchers used climate- and satellite-imaging data to determine which of various climate factors -- including rainfall, drought and daytime temperatures -- had the most effect on the carbon sink's swings. They found the strongest association with variations in tropical nighttime temperatures, which have risen by about 0.6 degrees Celsius (33 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1959.
First author William Anderegg, an associate research scholar in the Princeton Environmental Institute, explained that he and his colleagues determined that warm nighttime temperatures lead plants to put more carbon into the atmosphere through a process known as respiration.
Just as warm nights make people more active, so too does it for plants. Although plants take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they also internally consume sugars to stay alive. That process, known as respiration, produces carbon dioxide, which plants step up in warm weather, Anderegg said. The researchers found that yearly variations in the carbon sink strongly correlated with variations in plant respiration.
"When you heat up a system, biological processes tend to increase," Anderegg said. "At hotter temperatures, plant respiration rates go up and this is what's happening during hot nights. Plants lose a lot more carbon than they would during cooler nights."
Previous research has shown that nighttime temperatures have risen significantly faster as a result of climate change than daytime temperatures, Anderegg said. This means that in future climate scenarios respiration rates could increase to the point that the land is putting more carbon into the atmosphere than it's taking out of it, "which would be disastrous," he said.
Of course, plants consume carbon dioxide as a part of photosynthesis, during which they convert sunlight into energy. While photosynthesis also is sensitive to rises in temperature, it only happens during the day, whereas respiration occurs at all hours and thus is more sensitive to nighttime warming, Anderegg said.
"Nighttime temperatures have been increasing faster than daytime temperatures and will continue to rise faster," Anderegg said. "This suggests that tropical ecosystems might be more vulnerable to climate change than previously thought, risking crossing the threshold from a carbon sink to a carbon source. But there's certainly potential for plants to acclimate their respiration rates and that's an area that needs future study."
This research was supported by the National Science Foundation MacroSystems Biology Grant (EF-1340270), RAPID Grant (DEB-1249256) and EAGER Grant (1550932); and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate and Global Change postdoctoral fellowship administered by the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research.
William R. L. Anderegg, Ashley P. Ballantyne, W. Kolby Smith, Joseph Majkut, Sam Rabin, Claudie Beaulieu, Richard Birdsey, John P. Dunne, Richard A. Houghton, Ranga B. Myneni, Yude Pan, Jorge L. Sarmiento,? Nathan Serota, Elena Shevliakova, Pieter Tan and Stephen W. Pacala. " Tropical nighttime warming as a dominant driver of variability in the terrestrial carbon sink." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online in-advance of print Dec. 7 2015. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1521479112
Morgan Kelly | EurekAlert!
Ten-year anniversary of the Neumayer Station III
18.01.2019 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung
The pace at which the world’s permafrost soils are warming
16.01.2019 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung
The scientific and political community alike stress the importance of German Antarctic research
Joint Press Release from the BMBF and AWI
The Antarctic is a frigid continent south of the Antarctic Circle, where researchers are the only inhabitants. Despite the hostile conditions, here the Alfred...
World first experiments on sensor that may revolutionise everything from medical devices to unmanned vehicles
The new sensor - capable of detecting vibrations of living cells - may revolutionise everything from medical devices to unmanned vehicles.
Dead and alive at the same time? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics have implemented Erwin Schrödinger’s paradoxical gedanken experiment employing an entangled atom-light state.
In 1935 Erwin Schrödinger formulated a thought experiment designed to capture the paradoxical nature of quantum physics. The crucial element of this gedanken...
Cellulose obtained from wood has amazing material properties. Empa researchers are now equipping the biodegradable material with additional functionalities to produce implants for cartilage diseases using 3D printing.
It all starts with an ear. Empa researcher Michael Hausmann removes the object shaped like a human ear from the 3D printer and explains:
The phenomenon of so-called superlubricity is known, but so far the explanation at the atomic level has been missing: for example, how does extremely low friction occur in bearings? Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institutes IWM and IWS jointly deciphered a universal mechanism of superlubricity for certain diamond-like carbon layers in combination with organic lubricants. Based on this knowledge, it is now possible to formulate design rules for supra lubricating layer-lubricant combinations. The results are presented in an article in Nature Communications, volume 10.
One of the most important prerequisites for sustainable and environmentally friendly mobility is minimizing friction. Research and industry have been dedicated...
16.01.2019 | Event News
14.01.2019 | Event News
12.12.2018 | Event News
18.01.2019 | Materials Sciences
18.01.2019 | Life Sciences
18.01.2019 | Health and Medicine