More CO2 limits plants’ protein output

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The Mojave desert: As CO2levels rose, it took up unexpectedly large amountsofthe gas Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

The Mojave desert: As CO2 levels rose, it took up unexpectedly large amounts of the gas
Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

With increasing warmth drying more of the Earth, arid soils may absorb more carbon dioxide – but that in turn is likely to limit protein production.

LONDON, 12 April – As global temperatures rise, more than one third of the land surface may become more arid. Although there will be changes in rainfall patterns, heat – and the attendant evaporation of the soil – could extend ever drier conditions to more and more farmland and cities, according to research in the journal Climate Dynamics.

The new study – which excludes Antarctica – is led by Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist both with the University of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the US space agency Nasa. It is based on climate simulation, and forecasts that 12% of the land surface will be subjected to drought by 2100 just through changes in rainfall. Throw in the increased heat, though, and the drying effect will be spread to 30% of the land.

Even those regions that might be expected to get more rain will be at greater risk of drought. This would be very bad news for the wheat, corn and rice belts of the south-western US and south-eastern China.

“For agriculture, moisture in the soil is what really matters,” said Cook’s co-author, Jason Smerdon. The research confirms previous studies, and the more recent warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other studies, have predicted that extremes of temperature will be bad news for farmers anyway, with yields  likely to be affected.

But nothing in climate research is simple. The extra warming will be a direct consequence of ever-higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A study in Nature Climate Change has just revealed that arid zones offer an unexpected source of what engineers call negative feedback.

Carbon sink

A 10-year experiment in the Mojave desert in the US has shown that as carbon dioxide levels increase, arid areas take up unexpectedly large amounts of the gas.

“They are a major sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide, so as CO2 levels go up, they’ll increase their uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere. They’ll help take up some of that excess CO2 going into the atmosphere. They can’t take it all up, but they’ll help,” says Dave Evans, a biologist at Washington State University.

All land surfaces absorb some carbon. Until now, most attention has been paid to the role of forests as major “sinks” of carbon. But the US experimenters marked out nine octagonal plots of the desert and blew air with current levels of CO2 over three of them, and air with 550 parts per million of CO2, the expected level by 2050, over another three. Three received no extra air at all.

Then the researchers excavated the soils to a depth of a metre to measure the absorbed carbon and were surprised by the gain in carbon during a relatively short exposure in the plots exposed to the extra carbon dioxide.

Arid and semi-arid soils account for a large proportion of the planet’s land surface: overall, they could increase carbon uptake to account for between 15% and 28% of the amount currently being absorbed by land surfaces.

Less protein

This sounds like good news, on balance. It may not be, as far as food supplies are concerned. In the same issue of Nature Climate Change a second study reports on experiments into the effects of elevated levels of carbon dioxide on wheat.

Carbon dioxide is seen as a fertiliser of plants and indeed, without it, there would be no plants. But Arnold Bloom, a plant scientist at the University of California Davis reports that, according to his experiments, elevated levels of carbon dioxide also inhibit the conversion of nitrate into protein in crops.

Wheat provides nearly one fourth of all protein in the global human diet. Other studies have shown the same effect with wheat – and also with rice, barley and potato tubers.

“When this decline is factored into the respective portion of dietary protein that humans derive from these various crops, it becomes clear that the overall protein available for human consumption may drop by about three per cent as atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches the levels anticipated to occur during the next few decades,” Bloom said. – Climate News Network