Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Heavy breathing plants producing less carbon than feared

Arctic cotton near Ilulissat, West Greenland Arctic cotton near Ilulissat, West Greenland Andrzej Gibasiewicz
23 Mar
2016
When plants respire, they contribute a massive carbon flux to the atmosphere so their response to higher temperatures is a major concern for scientists. However, it’s now thought that increases in plant respiration may not be as high as previously estimated

Worldwide, plants are believed to produce about 60 billion tons of CO2 each year, around six times the amount humans produce through fossil fuel burning. Why? Plants, like animals, need to respire. They take in CO2 from the air for photosynthesis and emit roughly half of that amount during respiration. Like animals, plants also breathe harder as it gets hotter and, until now, there had been fears among scientists that respiration increases exponentially as temperatures climb, outweighing photosynthesis. In other words, plants were exhaling more CO2 than they were inhaling.

‘With this new model, we predict that some ecosystems are releasing a lot less CO2 through leaf respiration than we previously thought,’ says Kevin Griffin, plant physiologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and co-author of a new study on plant responses to global warming.

The study suggests that this effect has its limits and that rates of increased respiration actually slow as temperatures climb. ‘What we thought was a steep curve in some places is actually a little gentler,’ says Griffin. The global study looked at the respiration of 231 plants species from biomes all over the world and found that the biggest change in estimates are in the coldest regions, which have seen the most relative warming. They found that respiration increase was 28 per cent lower than estimated at the North Slopes of Alaska, and 15 per cent lower than estimated in Black Rock Forest, New York.

While the findings can tell us a lot about carbon storage methods in plants, they might not completely rewrite climate models to predict less warming in the future. ‘We now have a better way to estimate one process, but it’s only one process,’ says Griffin. ‘The whole system is quite complicated, and a small change in the balance between one part and another could produce a really big result. That’s the challenge we face when we think about the Earth as a whole.’

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital have a green future,...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Nature

Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of…

Tectonics

The reason for the unusual location of Mount St Helens…

Climate

Most plants thicken their leaves in response to higher carbon…

Climate

Not just the preserve of flatulent cows, methane is causing…

Climate

As the United States’ Supreme Court delays a landmark climate…

Geophoto

Of Britain's 15 national parks, the New Forest is probably…

Energy

The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…

Tectonics

Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away

Climate

Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…

Wildlife

Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…

Oceans

A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…

Climate

The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…

Oceans

The Ocean Cleanup has launched System 001, a floating barrier…

Nature

New videos reveal how plants respond to wounds, sending forth…

Geophoto

The recent heatwave had everyone longing for a drop of…

Wildlife

The demand for horseshoe crab blood – vital for testing…

Climate

One of the problems in getting accurate climate science out…

Wildlife

Italy is divided over the future of its wolves and…

Energy

A Scottish tidal power project in the Pentland Firth has…

Oceans

The world’s first full global analysis of beaches reveals the…