Climate Craziness of the Week: Plants blamed for us not roasting since 1950

From the Department of irrelevant “what ifs”, and Princeton University, comes this story about what Earth would be like if we didn’t have plants pumping the carbon cycle since the industrial revolution. They seem almost disappointed we don’t have a bigger temperature increase, citing plants “…significantly slowed the planet’s transition to being red-hot”. Red-hot? Gee, they must visualize in GISTEMP.

Without plants, Earth would cook under billions of tons of additional carbon

Pacala forest

Enhanced growth of Earth’s leafy greens during the 20th century has significantly slowed the planet’s transition to being red-hot, according to the first study to specify the extent to which plants have prevented climate change since pre-industrial times. Researchers based at Princeton University found that land ecosystems have kept the planet cooler by absorbing billions of tons of carbon, especially during the past 60 years.

The planet’s land-based carbon “sink” — or carbon-storage capacity — has kept 186 billion to 192 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere since the mid-20th century, the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From the 1860s to the 1950s, land use by humans was a substantial source of the carbon entering the atmosphere because of deforestation and logging. After the 1950s, however, humans began to use land differently, such as by restoring forests and adopting agriculture that, while larger scale, is higher yield. At the same time, industries and automobiles continued to steadily emit carbon dioxide that contributed to a botanical boom. Although a greenhouse gas and pollutant, carbon dioxide also is a plant nutrient.

Researchers based at Princeton University found that Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems have absorbed 186 billion to 192 billion tons of carbon since the mid-20th century, which has significantly contained the global temperature and levels of carbon in the atmosphere. The study is the first to specify the extent to which plants have prevented climate change since pre-industrial times.

Had Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems remained a carbon source they would have instead generated 65 billion to 82 billion tons of carbon in addition to the carbon that it would not have absorbed, the researchers found. That means a total of 251 billion to 274 billion additional tons of carbon would currently be in the atmosphere. That much carbon would have pushed the atmosphere’s current carbon dioxide concentration to 485 parts-per-million (ppm), the researchers report — well past the scientifically accepted threshold of 450 (ppm) at which the Earth’s climate could drastically and irreversibly change. The current concentration is 400 ppm. [Anthony: No, it is not. The current concentration is: 393.32 ppm as of October 6th, 2013 Source: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/weekly.html ]

Those “carbon savings” amount to a current average global temperature that is cooler by one-third of a degree Celsius (or a half-degree Fahrenheit), which would have been a sizeable jump, the researchers report. The planet has warmed by only 0.74 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit) since the early 1900s, and the point at which scientists calculate the global temperature would be dangerously high is a mere 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) more than pre-industrial levels.

The study is the most comprehensive look at the historical role of terrestrial ecosystems in controlling atmospheric carbon, explained first author Elena Shevliakova, a senior climate modeler in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Previous research has focused on how plants might offset carbon in the future, but overlooked the importance of increased vegetation uptake in the past, she said.

“People always say we know carbon sinks are important for the climate,” Shevliakova said. “We actually for the first time have a number and we can say what that sink means for us now in terms of carbon savings.”

“Changes in carbon dioxide emissions from land-use activities need to be carefully considered. Until recently, most studies would just take fossil-fuel emissions and land-use emissions from simple models, plug them in and not consider how managed lands such as recovering forests take up carbon,” she said. “It’s not just climate — it’s people. On land, people are major drivers of changes in land carbon. They’re not just taking carbon out of the land, they’re actually changing the land’s capacity to take up carbon.”

Scott Saleska, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona who studies interactions between vegetation and climate, said that the researchers provide a potentially compelling argument for continued forest restoration and preservation by specifying the “climate impact” of vegetation. Saleska is familiar with the research but had no role in it.

“I think this does have implications for policies that try to value the carbon saved when you restore or preserve a forest,” Saleska said. “This modeling approach could be used to state the complete ‘climate impact’ of preserving large forested areas, whereas most current approaches just account for the ‘carbon impact.’ Work like this could help forest-preservation programs more accurately consider the climate impacts of policy measures related to forest preservation.”

Although the researchers saw a strong historical influence of carbon fertilization in carbon absorption, that exchange does have its limits, Saleska said. If carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue rising, more vegetation would be needed to maintain the size of the carbon sink Shevliakova and her colleagues reported.

“There is surely some limit to how long increasing carbon dioxide can continue to promote plant growth that absorbs carbon dioxide,” Saleska said. “Carbon dioxide is food for plants, and putting more food out there stimulates them to ‘eat’ more. However, just like humans, eventually they get full and putting more food out doesn’t stimulate more eating.”

The researchers used the comprehensive Earth System Model (ESM2G), a climate-carbon cycle model developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid and Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), to simulate how carbon and climate interacted with vegetation, soil and marine ecosystems between 1861 and 2005. The GFDL model predicted changes in climate and in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide based on fossil fuel emissions of carbon. Uniquely, the model also predicted emissions from land-use changes — such as deforestation, wood harvesting and forest regrowth — that occurred from 1700 to 2005.

“Unless you really understand what the land-use processes are it’s very hard to say what the system will do as a whole,” said Shevliakova, who worked with corresponding author Stephen Pacala, Princeton’s Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Sergey Malyshev, a professional specialist in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton; GFDL physical scientists Ronald Stouffer and John Krasting; and George Hurtt, a professor of geographical sciences at the University of Maryland.

“After the 1940s and 1950s, if you look at the land-use change trajectory, it’s been slowed down in the expansion of agriculture and pastures,” Shevliakova said. “When you go from extensive agriculture to intensive agriculture you industrialize the production of food, so people now use fertilizers instead of chopping down more forests. A decrease in global deforestation combined with enhanced vegetation growth caused by the rapid increase in carbon dioxide changed the land from a carbon source into a carbon sink.”

For scientists, the model is a significant contribution to understanding the terrestrial carbon sink, Saleska said. Scientists only uncovered the land-based carbon sink about two decades ago, while models that can combine the effects of climate change and vegetation growth have only been around for a little more than 10 years, Saleska said. There is work to be done to refine climate models and the Princeton-led research opens up new possibilities while also lending confidence to future climate projections, Saleska said.

“A unique value of this study is that it simulates the past, for which, unlike the future, we have observations,” Saleska said. “Past observations about climate and carbon dioxide provide a test about how good the model simulation was. If it’s right about the past, we should have more confidence in its ability to predict the future.

###

The paper, “Historical warming reduced due to enhanced land carbon uptake,” was published Oct. 15 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This work was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (grant NA08OAR4320752), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (grant 2011-67003-30373), and the Princeton Carbon Mitigation Initiative.

Related:

Surprise: Earths’ Biosphere is Booming, Satellite Data Suggests CO2 the Cause

AGU says CO2 is plant food

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“Without plants, Earth would cook under billions of tons of additional carbon”
And who would care?
Without plants, all creatures that rely on the plants would die.
So, even if they “cooked”, who would be around to eat them?
We would not have a runaway carbon cycle without plants – the carbon cycle would quickly cease to revolve, would it not?

MattN

Dumbest “what if” ever. Complete waste of money.

Someone wasted taxpayer dollars for this? Ridiculous!!!

Please, Lord, stop me from reading the above:
“The planet’s land-based carbon “sink” — or carbon-storage capacity — has kept 186 billion to 192 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere since the mid-20th century,…”
Uh, sure is a good thing those plants did that. Wonder if they were removing carbon from the atmosphere before the mid-20th century, too?

Bob, Missoula

Bob you said what I wanted to but without cussing.

I loved it, needed a good laugh!

A useful admission that CO2 is plant food that promotes plant growth (that will provide food for humans) and will limit temperature in ways not modeled by climate models.

Aarrgh!
““A unique value of this study is that it simulates the past, for which, unlike the future, we have observations,…”
Yeah, that soundsunique all right. Surely, this is the first study, ever, from the beginning of recorded history, since man first walked on the planet, that didn’t observe the future. Worse, it only simulates the past, for which we actually do have observations!
Is it just me, or is there a comedy skit here just waiting to be written?

Matt

Still waiting for the study how many flawed climate change studies would have been avoided if these damned plants wouldnt be around the last million years. My God, can all this be true??
Rgds from Europe, annother key place for costly but worthless science,
Matt

Wow, so when C02 in the atmosphere increases, the amount of vegetation increases,and thus the amount of Carbon taken out of the atmosphere and “locked up” in a Carbon Sink increases. It’s almost like the system has some kind of self-limiting factors built in to it!
Hmm, what would you call that, negative something or other… Negative Feedback, maybe???
It’s amazing without a study like this no one could ever have predicted that the natural world would act this way. Could they?

richardscourtney

Friends:
The report says

“A unique value of this study is that it simulates the past, for which, unlike the future, we have observations,” Saleska said. “Past observations about climate and carbon dioxide provide a test about how good the model simulation was. If it’s right about the past, we should have more confidence in its ability to predict the future.

No competent scientist would utter such nonsensical drivel.
If a model cannot emulate the past there is reason to suppose it cannot predict the future.
But an ability of a model to emulate the past does NOT of itself provide any “confidence in its ability to predict the future”. This is because there are an infinite number of ways to make a model fit the past but there is only one way the future will occur.
Richard

“Scientists only uncovered the land-based carbon sink about two decades ago, …”
Is this true?
We didn’t figure out that plants removed carbon from the atmosphere as part of the carbon cycle until almost the end of the 20th Century?

Mark Bofill

Yes, without plants there’d be more CO2, although we animals who ultimately depend on plants for food would never have existed in the first place.
Also remember that without hemorrhoids we’d all sit easier, and without Princeton studies we’d all sleep better, and without gravity we’d all be flung through the sky to die in the cold darkness of space.

Bennett In Vermont

If they had asked an indoor gardener they could have learned that most plants don’t even hit their maximum growth potential until the level of CO2 is above 1200 ppm. That’s when they really start to take off.
Oh well, we can’t let simple facts get in the way of a Mad Magazine style scientific paper.

Mark Bofill says:
October 16, 2013 at 1:41 pm
… without gravity we’d all be flung through the sky to die in the cold darkness of space.

Please stop it Mark. You are scaring me.

Mike Smith

“Scientists only uncovered the land-based carbon sink about two decades ago, …”
I guess they’re referring to progressive climate scientists.
I knew 50 years ago, when I was a kid in grade school.

Gary

“Carbon dioxide is food for plants, and putting more food out there stimulates them to ‘eat’ more. However, just like humans, eventually they get full and putting more food out doesn’t stimulate more eating.”
Gosh. And if they eat all that yukky CO2 then they get too big and fall over. They get too big and can’t find enough water so they die the awful death of dehydration. Sigh… another reason to avoid putting too much devil-gas in the air. I think I’ll go to Princeton and become a scientist. I can become a plant dietician and help fat plants detox from CO2 abuse.
And if you can’t tell this is sarcasm, you need to get out more.

McComberBoy

So… Isn’t this the equivalent of saying, “If he didn’t have testicular tissue, your uncle would have been your aunt”? Really?
pbh

Jardinero1

I like to think that carbon is more important for the sinks than the sinks are important for the carbon. Carbon is very beneficial to the sinks. I happen to like the sinks myself, so I suggest we should emit more carbon to help the sinks grow better.

AND THERE WOULD BE NO OXYGEN!

Werner Brozek

Those “carbon savings” amount to a current average global temperature that is cooler by one-third of a degree Celsius
On the basis of what happened over the last 17 years with huge increases in CO2 and no change in RSS, how can they prove this?

Mike Smith

Without trees and plants there would be very little atmospheric oxygen and everyone would die.
Without water and sunlight, there wouldn’t be any trees or plants and everyone would die.
etc. etc. etc.
Do these environmentalists understand anything about the environment.

Wow what a lot of words, and I guess salary? In order to state the bleeding obvious except for the absurd postulation that plants will have so much to eat they will stop being carbon dioxide hungry – yeah right.
.
Stop paying these academidiots now and make them get proper jobs.

Mark Bofill

JohnWho says:
October 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Sorry John. But people need to be alarmed about gravity. It’s just plain irresponsible that more scientists don’t explain these facts to people clearly.

Peter Miller

And lest we all forget, 15,000 years ago CO2 levels fell to 180ppm, only just above plant life Armageddon of circa 150ppm.

John West

This is just another small incremental step in the direction of the skeptical position from the beginning. Increasing CO2 increases plant growth greening the planet and reducing temperatures. One of many negative feedbacks we’ve been ridiculed for mentioning time and time again. In another few years you won’t be able to tell the pigs (official position) from the people (skeptical position @ the beginning), but they’ll still be calling for action on climate change and calling us deniers.

Owen in GA

Maybe everyone missed it, but the real purpose of this study was to try to put a dollar value for forest restoration into the fondly-dreamed-of “Carbon” markets. This was a means for the rabid environmentalist to get their piggy snouts into the trough of Carbon-offsets. It says what it says without reliance on any conception of reality whatsoever, because it is purely about getting other people’s money into their pockets!

Latitude

absorption bands and logarithmic be damned……

If there were no plants, then the planet cooking is the least of our problems.

@ Mark Bofill –
Your comments re: gravity
weigh me down.

Colin

Maybe….just maybe…that’s why the earth and all the life forms on it have evolved the way it did? Nah. Can’t be as simple as that. We need a major taxpayer funded study before we can answer that. Or that could direct the funding my way and use this as their conclusion.

Green Sand

McComberBoy says:
October 16, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Or two snips and Bobs your auntie?

KingDube

Some day, hopefully soon, these rocket scientists will discover that the oceans are net emitters and the plants are taking up far more natural CO2 than we humans emit.

Chad Wozniak

How desperate can these people get?
Will Happer at Princeton must be just shaking his head.

davidmhoffer

What a curious evolution. The “it’s worse than we thought” meme has been replaced with the “here’s why it’s not as bad as we thought but in the future it still will be worse than we thought” meme. They’re like a kid on a bicycle who insists one has to peddle backwards to change gears.

Pamela Gray

I haven’t read the paper. However, be careful how you use hindcasts to measure a model. Models depend on past data for training purposes. Therefore the idea that hindcasts are a measure of the validity of the model itself and its forecasts in particular is not based on the use of an independent analysis of ability. The only thing that can be said is that the data entry process used to train the model was done accurately since the model reflects back accurately on the data used for that period.
I did it the hard way. After hand entering a thousand data points, I did several random checks by printing out the data and checking it against the punch cards which were also checked against the paper copies of the actual test session. If the print out matched the paper and pen original, great. Data entry was accurately done. So too, if the hindcast matches the training period, great. But you can’t say anything else.

Gary Poteat

“Carbon dioxide is food for plants, and putting more food out there stimulates them to ‘eat’ more. However, just like humans, eventually they get full and putting more food out doesn’t stimulate more eating.”
‘Earth to “ecologist”, come in!” Plants are like people in that they get “full” if they eat too much? Has this so-called scientist ever seen kudzu? What happens if plants overeat? Do they develop Type II diabetes? I am sure that at some point CO2 levels become less stimulative but the number I had seen was about 5000 ppm. Whatever, the number is, I don’t think that the plants get “full” (unless he is thinking of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors).
Just when you think it is safe to read the peer reviewed literature, the loonies take over the asylum again. I’m all for analogies but they out to be a little more rational than that.

MaggieC

Does anyone else remember an episode of Saturday Night Live with a segment called “What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?”

Berényi Péter

Vegetation has to be punished for masking consequences of our eco-sins for so long. The obvious way to do that is to reclaim as much forest as possible and convert the land to energy crops. That’s sustainable, because biofuel is a renewable resource, unlike forests. Oh, wait. Am I getting confused or what?
Well, let’s start it over with a better plan. Remove all carbon dioxide pollution from air, making it nice and clean. That would surely put an end to those pesky plants, starving the evil things to death. There, fixed.

Frank

“Is it just me, or is there a comedy skit here just waiting to be written?”
It’s already started years ago. “it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yogi Berra.

I guess they were smoking contaminated pot when they came up with this “what-if”.

Bruce Cobb

“Carbon dioxide is food for plants, and putting more food out there stimulates them to ‘eat’ more. However, just like humans, eventually they get full and putting more food out doesn’t stimulate more eating.”
Comedy gold. You can’t make this stuff up.

JohnWho says:
October 16, 2013 at 1:40 pm
“Scientists only uncovered the land-based carbon sink about two decades ago, …”
Is this true?
We didn’t figure out that plants removed carbon from the atmosphere as part of the carbon cycle until almost the end of the 20th Century?

Well — I learned this in Public School in the 1950s — in grade six and seven science class….
Perhaps the knowledge was lost in the mists of time…. It’s arcan knowledge yah know — like unto witchcraft and sorcery so to speak.

john robertson

Next, scientist discover we live on a planet, which has a climate dominated by the water cycles.
Actually this is an indication of the panic the activists are suffering, as in Oh my God, CO2 is plant food,…. Who knew.

Gahhhh, these people are such egotists! Or have never been outside a city in their entire lives. Maybe they could of just asked some of the major paper/logging companies how long they have been replanting the forests they log in…answer is well over 100 years! But according to these clowns that’s only since the 1950s? Maybe they can’t do math either…

Alan Watt, Climate Denialist Level 7

I must have missed something. Did the planet “cook” back in part of the Cambrian (500-600 MYA) when CO2 levels were mostly above 5000 ppm and peaked at almost 7000 ppm? No, temperature then was about 10C warmer than today, about the same as during Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (65 – 248 MYA) when CO2 fluctuated between a high of about 2000 ppm into a steady decline to under 1000 ppm. See here for a convenient graph.
Besides, in the biosphere the waste of one organism is nourishment for another. If by some magic all the green plants disappeared and CO2 levels rose sharply, it just means something would evolve to take advantage of the bounty, bringing CO2 concentration back down (not that we would be around to care).
I myself am going to go home and imbibe some yeast excrement. It’s the least I can do for them as otherwise they’d all expire in their own pee. I have no worries that the planet will cook, but it’s clear that has already happened to the brains of some Princeton researchers.

ShrNfr

And without carbon we would be talking about any of this.
Which rocks do they turn over to find these guys & gals???
But Frank, the GCM models have problems even making predictions about the past. Yogi was on to something.

Mike M

I surmise this stupid ‘research’ was funded by our tax dollars? Outrageous waste!

kcrucible

“Is this true?
We didn’t figure out that plants removed carbon from the atmosphere as part of the carbon cycle until almost the end of the 20th Century?”
Nope.
http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/missing-carbon/
“Alone in a sealed jar, a mouse would die from exhaled CO2. But as scientist Joseph Priestley observed in 1771, adding a mint plant allows the mouse to thrive. In this proof of photosynthesis, the mint absorbed CO2, retained carbon for growth, and released oxygen. “