One of the remarkable things about nature is its ability to adapt. Even with actions as monumental as climate change, it still demonstrates this ability. A study by the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts provides evidence of how this occurs in a paper published in the May 23, 2011 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Forests and other plants play a vital role in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they can provide food and energy through a process called photosynthesis. Their ability to store carbon dioxide is called carbon sequestration. When forests are lost, less carbon dioxide can be removed from the air, increasing levels in the atmosphere.
Researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory simulated anticipated climate change conditions over a seven-year period in a deciduous forest in New England. They observed that the increase in temperature stimulated decomposition in the soil, resulting in a greater availability of nitrogen to plants and trees. Many plants cannot fix nitrogen from the air and fulfill their need from what they can obtain from the soil.
The increase in nitrogen triggered a positive change in tree growth. This effect, in turn, stimulated greater carbon dioxide uptake by the trees. After seven years, the difference in carbon dioxide loss was negligible. These findings demonstrate that forests can adapt to the pressure of climate change to some degree, adding a whole new dimension to modeling and planning.
The unknown question remains balance. When does the increase in carbon dioxide emissions outpace plants’ ability to adapt? These findings also underscore the fact that changes to offset the effects of climate change require time. Taken together, these facts stress the importance of action.
Carbon dioxide emissions increased globally by six percent between 2009 and 2010, estimates the U.S. Department of Energy. Given those facts, the urgency for implementing changes sooner rather than later is clear. Yes, plants can adapt, as long as they have the time to do so. In addition, further changes in carbon dioxide emissions cannot occur faster than this process needs to play out.