May 09, 2003
Rising Carbon Dioxide Causing Forests To Expand Into Deserts

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is rising due to the large scale burning of coal, oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. This is creating fears of global warming. However, if a new report from Israel is correct high atmospheric CO2 will cause forests to expand into arid deserts.

Rehovot, Israel — May 8, 2003 — 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.

I am of the view that the fears of global warming are overblown because within a few decades technological advances in many fields will make photovoltaics and other renewable energy sources much cheaper than they are now. Once nanotechnological manufacturing methods become cheap then all houses and other structures will have photovoltaic siding and roofs and many other structures. Computers will be so many orders of magnitude faster 20, 30, and 40 years from now that they will be able to speed up the rate of scientific experimentation and engineering design by orders of magnitude by doing simulation experiments to find better designs. This will greatly speed the discovery of processes for making cheap renewable replacements for fossil fuels. Therefore projections about CO2 levels 50 or 100 years hence based on current fossil fuel demand trends are hopelessly naive.

This latest report suggests that the rising CO2 levels of the next few decades will provide some benefits to humanity. When renewable replacements for fossil fuels become cost competitive there may well be a debate at that point as to whether we should continue burning fossil fuels at a rate fast enough to maintain CO2 at a level that will support the continued spread of forests into deserts.

Also, it will become possible to genetically engineer crop plants to grow faster and with less irrigation in a high CO2 environment. It seems reasonable to expect that crop plants will be genetically engineered to be optimized for higher CO2 environments. Among the benefits of such optimization would be a reduced need for irrigation and more rapid plant growth. As a consequence of this it would not be at all surprising if 30 or 40 years from now the agricultural industry becomes a major source of political support for the continued burning of fossil fuels.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 May 09 11:39 AM  Engineering Environmental

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