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Top Story

High CO2 levels cause plants to thicken their leaves, which could worsen climate change

Plant scientists have observed that when levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rise, most plants do something unusual: They thicken their leaves. And since human activity is raising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, thick-leafed plants appear to be in our future. But the consequences of this physiological response go far beyond heftier leaves on many plants. Two University of Washington scientists have discovered that plants with thicker leaves may exacerbate the effects of climate change because they would be less efficient in sequestering atmospheric carbon, a fact that climate change models to date have not taken into account. In a new paper, the researchers report that, when they incorporated this information into global climate models under the high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels expected later this century, the global "carbon sink” contributed by plants was less productive -- leaving about 5.8 extra petagrams, or 6.39 million tons, of carbon in the atmosphere per year. Those levels are similar to the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere each year due to human-generated fossil fuel emissions -- 8 petagrams, or 8.8 million tons. In addition to a weakening plant carbon sink, the simulations indicated that global temperatures could rise an extra 0.3 to 1.4 degrees Celsius beyond what has already been projected to occur by scientists studying climate change.

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