With study after study predicting a grim struggle with climate change in the near future, it’s clear securing our environment will be the biggest struggle of the 21st century. Luckily, scientists and engineers are spending a significant amount of time developing new technologies that remove harmful greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. A new study explains why that’s a good idea: We might not be able to rely on nature’s own carbon-removal tools, plants, to save us from climate change.
A group of researchers from Columbia University looked at how plants handle changing climates, and the results are not good. According to the study, plants that live in extreme conditions, with frequent droughts or heat waves, are not able to absorb as much CO2 as plants that exist in stable environments. The takeaway: Plants get worse at absorbing CO2 the more severe the climate gets. This is bad news, as scientists predict extreme weather events are only becoming more common.
Plants can be finicky, requiring the right amount of sunlight and water to grow. Specifically, the quality of the soil and the amount of water in it can dramatically affect how much a plant can grow and how quickly, which in turn affects how much carbon dioxide that plant is able to absorb. The Columbia researchers attempted to predict how much water that soil would need by employing several climate models for analysis.
They found that long-term drought-flood cycles under a warming climate hurt plants’ growth, and that’s before taking into account short-term effects like heat waves and wildfires. In the end, the team found that plants are only absorbing about half as much carbon as they would be if climate change wasn’t around.
That’s very bad news for us, because we can’t rely on plants and trees to fix this problem. We can’t trust that plants will absorb all our excess carbon dioxide, meaning the onus is on humanity to solve this issue ourselves. With time fast ticking away as the climate crisis grows, this should make everyone very worried.