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

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

LATEST HEADLINES

Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

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

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    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...

Geophoto

So much photographic theory is dedicated to image sharpness that…

Wildlife

Changing temperatures in East Africa are set to upset a delicate…

Climate

As the planet warms and tensions rise, Marco Magrini finds that…

Oceans

A deep-sea mission in the ocean around Bermuda confirms the…

Oceans

An oxygen-deprived ‘dead zone’ in the Arabian Sea is much…

Wildlife

Scientists working with new drone technology are hoping to reveal…

Oceans

A new virtual reality experience, ‘BBC Earth: Life in VR’,…

Nature

Faced with protecting a country more than 30 times the…

Oceans

As Chile’s president leaves office, the country designates large expanses…

Energy

More than two years after first being announced, the International…

Wildlife

The winner of the 2018 Whitley Gold Award is Pablo…

Polar

Celebrate World Penguin Day with this selection of penguin-related stories…

Geophoto

It takes a lot more than the latest research data…

Wildlife

NGOs shine a light on the underreporting of wildlife crime…

Wildlife

Pioneering laser photography is being used by scientists on the…

Geophoto

Annual competition looks to celebrate island life in all its…

Oceans

Increasing interest in offshore aquaculture is dividing environmentalists

Energy

Well-meaning promises don’t always have positive outcomes. Marco Magrini finds…

Wildlife

The RSPB introduces a new hotline for reporting the unlawful…

Wildlife

With the death earlier this week of the world’s last…