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Studying plants as CO2 sponges

Maryland researchers grow plants in air enriched with carbon dioxide to understand climate change...

Written by L A Times,Washington Post |
October 11, 2009 11:55:19 pm

This lush marsh south of Annapolis,Maryland seems like an alien landscape—clear plastic bubbles dot the watery plain,with curved white pipes poking,periscope-like,out of the tall,green grass. The odd-looking structures spread across Kirkpatrick Marsh are providing researchers a peek into the Earth’s future,helping them understand how climate change could alter the world we live in.

For the past 23 years,Bert Drake and other scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Shady Side have been monitoring the growth of marsh grasses and plants encased in the clear plastic bubbles on the fringe of the Rhode River. Those patches have been fed a steady diet of air enriched with carbon dioxide—the gas scientists say is driving our climate toward irrevocable change as human activity spews more of it into the atmosphere.

What Drake and colleagues have found is good news,of a sort. Three-square,or scirpus olneyi,a sedge blanketing this salt marsh and commonly found throughout much of North America,grows thicker and faster as it’s fed more carbon dioxide,Drake says. Scientists have known for quite a while that plants generally grow better when exposed to air with higher-than-normal concentrations of carbon dioxide. But some shorter studies suggested that the plants’ growth spurt would tail off after a few years. With funding at first from the US Department of Energy and more recently from the US Geological Survey,Drake and colleagues tested the long-term effects by piping carbon dioxide into chambers enclosing the marsh plants. The clear plastic allowed sunlight to penetrate,so plants’ photosynthesis was not affected. The researchers enriched the air inside to double the level of CO2 in the open air outside—about how concentrated the gas might be in the Earth’s atmosphere by the end of the century,Drake notes,given current increases from burning fossil fuels.

Now,after more than two decades of tracking in the longest-running field study of its kind,Drake can say,“The bottom line is these plants have taken up a lot more carbon over the course of the study.” And they don’t become saturated.

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Scientists have found similar responses in other plant communities. Drake and others have monitored a tract of scrub oak forest near Kennedy Space Center in Florida for more than a decade,and found the bushy trees also took off with a boost in carbon dioxide.

But the Smithsonian scientist cautions that plants likely won’t save the planet from gorging on greenhouse gases. That’s because his research also has found that the marsh plants’ growth really is controlled by several factors—the most important being how much water they get.

That could be a problem,because scientists predict that climate shifts could disrupt precipitation patterns in this region. Rain and snow might fall more heavily in winter and spring,climate models indicate,but less frequently,coming in big storms followed by dry spells. Moisture in soil and plants also is likely to evaporate more readily as temperatures gradually climb.

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