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High CO2 levels cause plants to thicken their leaves, which could worsen climate change effects

Monday, October 1, 2018 - 11:00

Plant scientists have observed that when levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rise, most plants do something unusual: They thicken their leaves.

But the consequences of this physiological response go far beyond heftier leaves on many plants. Two University of Washington scientists have discovered that plants with thicker leaves may exacerbate the effects of climate change because they would be less efficient in sequestering atmospheric carbon, a fact that climate change models to date have not taken into account.

In a paper published online Oct. 1 by the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, the researchers report that, when they incorporated this information into global climate models under the high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels expected later this century, the global “carbon sink” contributed by plants was less productive — leaving about 5.8 extra petagrams, or 6.39 million tons, of carbon in the atmosphere per year. Those levels are similar to the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere each year due to human-generated fossil fuel emissions — 8 petagrams, or 8.8 million tons.

“Plants are flexible and respond to different environmental conditions,” said senior author Abigail Swann, a UW assistant professor of atmospheric sciences and biology. “But until now, no one had tried to quantify how this type of response to climate change will alter the impact that plants have on our planet.”

In addition to a weakening plant carbon sink, the simulations run by Swann and Marlies Kovenock, a UW doctoral student in biology, indicated that global temperatures could rise an extra 0.3 to 1.4 degrees Celsius beyond what has already been projected to occur by scientists studying climate change.

“If this single trait — leaf thickness — in high carbon dioxide levels has such a significant impact on the course of future climate change, we believe that global climate models should take other aspects of plant physiology and plant behavior into account when trying to forecast what the climate will look like later this century,” said Kovenock, who is lead author on the paper.

Swann and Kovenock hope that this study shows that it is necessary to consider plant responses to climate change in projections of future climate. There are many other changes in plant physiology and behavior under climate change that researchers could model next.

“We now know that even seemingly small alterations in plants such as this can have a global impact on climate, but we need more data on plant responses to simulate how plants will change with high accuracy,” said Swann. “People are not the only organisms that can influence climate.”

Read the full story on UW News.

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