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Biological Sciences News

Scientists Say Many Plants Don’t Respond to Warming as Thought

March 23, 2016

Prof Matthew Turnbull
Study coauthor Prof. Matthew Turnbull measures
chlorophyll fluorescence of an arctic willow
near the Toolik Lake research station in
northern Alaska (Photo by: Kevin Griffin/
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

New data lowers estimates of carbon release from plant respiration as temperature increases

Plants, like people, breathe, and when it gets hotter, they breathe harder. One product of respiration is the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Thus, researchers predict that as the planet is warmed by human-produced CO2, plants may add to the emissions, and amplify the warming. Now, the most comprehensive global study of its kind yet suggests that this effect has limits, and that increases in plant respiration may not be as big as previously estimated. It shows that rates of increase slow in an easily predictable way as temperatures mount, in every region of earth, from tropics to tundra. The newly defined curve leads to sharply reduced estimates of respiration, especially in the coldest regions.

On the most basic level, the study suggests that all plant life has the same internal temperature controls. It looks at respiration on daily to seasonal levels and does not directly address long-term climate change, but it does suggest that plant respiration may not feed back into global warming quite as much as feared. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Prof Matthew Turnbull from the School of Biological Sciences commented that “What we are finding is that across the globe, plant respiration is not quite as sensitive to changes in temperature as we had previously thought. This has implications for our modelling of global carbon exchange and predictions of biotic feedbacks on climate, but people should not interpret this as indicating that the potential for human-induced climate change is lessened.”

Published research paper:

Mary A. Heskel, Odhran S. O’Sullivan, Peter B. Reich, Mark G. Tjoelker, Lasantha K. Weerasinghe, Aurore Penillard, John J. G. Egerton, Danielle Creek, Keith J. Bloomfield, Jen Xiang, Felipe Sinca, Zsofia R. Stangl, Alberto Martinez-de la Torre, Kevin L. Griffin, Chris Huntingford, Vaughan Hurry, Patrick Meir, Matthew H. Turnbull, and Owen K. Atkin. Convergence in the temperature response of leaf respiration across biomes and plant functional types. PNAS 2016; published ahead of print March 21, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1520282113

For further information please contact:
Prof Matthew Turnbull
Phone: +64 3 364 2860

see also:
The Earth Institute Columbia University media release