Proposed benefits of rising carbon dioxide are more likely driven by water

July 10, 2017, University of Western Sydney
Proposed benefits of rising carbon dioxide are more likely driven by water
Drier grass. Credit: University of Western Sydney

One of the expected benefits from rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is that plants may use less water and avoid some of the damaging effects of drought. The basis for this effect is that plants close the pores called stomata on their leaves and less water is taken from the soil out through the plant and into the air. By taking in more carbon dioxide, plants can close their stomata earlier and this means they lose less water than they would otherwise.

This process has been tested extensively in cold temperate such as the grasslands of the Northern United States where it was found that elevated CO2 produced a 'water-savings effect' by the reduced water use of , while driving the increases in photosynthesis and productivity.

However, there has to date been little research on this effect in warm, dry ecosystems that cover much of the world in the tropical, subtropical and dry temperate regions including most of Australia. This creates questions around how much of the apparent benefits seen from rising CO2 in temperate ecosystems can be applied to ecosystems where drought and water limitation is much more common. Scientists expected that the presence of extra CO2 in the air of even warm and dry ecosystems such as Australian grasslands would improve their drought resilience as plants could take in more CO2 and close their stomata earlier.

Testing this theory on Australian grass species has shown that it is the presence of water that controls whether plants open their stomata more and not because of the extra CO2 in the air. This is quite the reverse of what scientists expected to find based on experiments from international research and is another example of the importance of tailored experiments specific to Australia's unique ecosystems.

"This research demonstrates that water availability in Australia has a big impact on increasing plant photosynthesis together with increased ," according to lead scientist at EucFACE, Professor David Ellsworth.

"Results from similar experiments running in cold temperate climate grasslands are quite different in their response to the results here in Australia. Here in Australia at EucFACE, we essentially show that there is no water-savings effect from rising CO2."

"Currently, global climate change prediction models are based on data that indicates that grasslands will increase their rate of photosynthesis under rising CO2, whereas in fact changes to ecosystems such as increased growth, increases in woody seedling establishment or establishment of different types of plants in the ecosystem are more likely to be the result of fluctuations in water and not as a result of extra CO2."

Previous research from has demonstrated a trend towards 'global greening', attributed to increased CO2 thought to enable plants to use less and therefore stay greener.

"Satellite imagery can tell us about what has happened in the past up to today," explains Professor Ellsworth.

"What the world is looking for and what EucFACE provides is what will happen starting today and going into the future. These results indicate that the big changes in carbon absorption by CO2 happen when there is enough rainfall and moisture. In Sydney the climate frequently swings from wet to dry and back again so often that this has much more impact than in other more consistently wet or dry regions. We can expect in the future that the changes in rainfall brought on by rising CO2 as well as the direct effect of CO2 on plants will interact."

Explore further: Indirect effects of rising CO2 levels on ecosystems more important than previously thought

Related Stories

US absorbed carbon dioxide despite drought

April 25, 2016

In the US, spring 2012 was the warmest on record. The subsequent summer was dryer and hotter than any summer since the 1930s, a period that became known in the history books as the 'Dust Bowl'. In 2012, drought and heat afflicted ...

Lending plants a hand to survive drought

June 26, 2017

The findings have helped some plants survive 50 percent longer in drought conditions, and could eventually benefit major crops such as barley, rice and wheat, which are crucial to world food supplies.

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 10, 2017
But, when the leaf stomatas close, the plant stops breathing and growing. That doesn't do anyone much good.
not rated yet Jul 11, 2017
Stomata also react to temperature. If the temperature rises, there is more transpiration. Won't that offset the increase in CO2?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.