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Plants Are Getting Bigger and Storing More Carbon, Study Finds

Flickr/Andreas Levers

As carbon levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, there seem to be only negative consequences: melting glaciers, acidifying oceans, more extreme storms, and so on.

But there’s at least one benefactor of the surge in carbon: plants.

All around the world, plants are facing a veritable feast of carbon, and this is leading to more efficient photosynthesis and greater carbon storage, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Photosynthesis is the process through which plants create food for themselves and it’s dependent on carbon and water.

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The higher concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, the researchers found, has allowed plants to be more selective about the carbon they use, which allows them to use less water in the creation of energy.

This has also allowed plants to grow bigger.

Ultimately, this means that plants could suck more carbon from the atmosphere with less water, partially offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.

“There’s more photosynthesis going on than in the past, and there’s more biomass,” the study’s lead author, Ralph Keeling, told The Washington Post. “And the accumulation of biomass is important, because it’s carbon that otherwise would have been in the air that got taken out and is slowing down the growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide. These things all hang together.”

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It’s not that plants didn’t have enough carbon prior to climate change. It’s that there are more of a certain type of carbon isotope.

Evidently, plants prefer an isotope called carbon-12, as opposed to the second most common isotope, carbon-13, which has one more neutron.

It turns out that burning fossil fuels releases more of carbon-12, which plants recognize and pull from the atmosphere, improving the reactions that enable photosynthesis.

As plants get bigger through this more efficient process, they’ll be able to hold more carbon.

The scientists don’t yet know if there’s a limit to this benefit, and if the world will be overrun by lush, enveloping blooms of green, but they suspect that eventually plants will hit a “sweet spot,” and become maximally efficient, according to The Washington Post.

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Plus, greater temperatures from climate change could undermine this benefit by making conditions in certain areas too hot and dry for plants to grow.

Either way, the new discovery provides a better understanding of how climate change is altering the planet.

In a field marked by wide margins of uncertainty — where sea level rise predictions range between two feet and more than 10 feet —  that clarity can only be a good thing.   

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