A new study suggests that while human activity continues to pour out increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), raising the risk of catastrophic global warming, mother nature has come to the planet’s rescue.
Rising CO2 is said to have stimulated the growth of more photosynthesising plants, which in turn have captured more of the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and kept its levels in check.
Between 2002 and 2014, rising levels of atmospheric CO2 have held steady at about 1.9 parts per million (ppm) per year.
Even though the gas was still accumulating, there was no acceleration in the build-up.
Photosynthesising plants absorb carbon, which they use to produce sugar and starch using energy from sunlight. The more carbon there is in the atmosphere, the more plant growth is stimulated. For this reason, large forested areas of the Earth, such as the Amazon basin, are important “carbon sinks”.
Study author Dr Trevor Keenan, from the US Department of Energy’s Berkeley National Laboratory, said: “This highlights the need to identify and protect ecosystems where the carbon sink is growing rapidly.”
During the latter half of the 20th century, the growth rate of atmospheric CO2 climbed steadily from 0.75 ppm/year in 1959 to 1.86 ppm/year in 2002.
But an analysis of the latest data last year by Dr Keenan’s team found that since 2002, the growth rate had remained flat.
The “pause” in CO2 build-up was surprising because it had occurred at a time when human activity was pumping record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
The scientists suspected the carbon must be disappearing into a “sink”. Besides vegetation, other carbon sinks include the oceans and peaty soil.
Computer simulations combined with satellite observations of vegetation and ground and atmospheric measurements of CO2 pointed strongly to plants.
The models suggested that rising CO2 levels caused land-based ecosystems to double their carbon uptake between the 1950s and 2000s, the researchers reported in the journal Nature Communications. This had risen from between one and two petagrams (trillion kilograms) of carbon per year to two to four pentagrams.
In comparison, human activity was emitting between nine and 10 petagrams of carbon per year.