Plants are thermostat for extreme weather

Plants could be the key to regulating extreme weather forecasts, as a new study demonstrates the importance of vegetation in responding to rising C02 levels.

Predicting how increasing atmospheric CO2 will affect the hydrologic cycle – from extreme weather forecasts to long-term projections for water resources – is critical to the future of the planet.

Although it is thought that this hydrologic change is driven by climate change-induced upheaval to precipitation and radiation, new research has found that vegetation plays a dominant role in the water cycle.

Researchers at Columbia Engineering discovered that plants will regulate the increasing stress placed on continental water resources in the future.

“Our finding that vegetation plays a key role in future terrestrial hydrologic response and water stress is of utmost importance to properly predict future dryness and water resources,” explained study lead author Pierre Gentine in a statement.

“This could be a real game-changer for understanding changes in continental water stress going into the future.”

The research team described plants as “the thermostat of the world”, taking up carbon from the atmosphere to thrive and releasing the water that they take from the soils. As a result, they also cool the surface, controlling the temperature that we feel.

The results showed that changes in key water-stress variables are strongly modified by vegetation physiological effects in response to increased CO2 at the leaf level.

The CO2 physiological response has a dominant role in evapotranspiration and has a major effect on long-term runoff and soil moisture compared to radiative or precipitation changes due to increased atmospheric CO2.

“This work highlights an important need to further study how plants will respond to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide,” added James Randerson of the University of California.

“Plants can have a big effect on the climate of land, and we need to better understand the ways that they will respond to carbon dioxide, warming, and other forms of global change.”

Photo credit: Edward Muslak/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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