Nav: Home

Plants' future water use affects long-term drought estimates

August 29, 2016

As humans pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and global temperatures rise, many questions loom. One major issue is how much fresh water will be available for people, forests and agriculture.

A study led by the University of Washington shows that popular long-term drought estimates have a major flaw: They ignore the fact that plants will be less thirsty as carbon dioxide rises. The study shows that shifts in how plants use water could roughly halve the extent of climate change-induced droughts.

"Plants matter," said Abigail Swann, a UW assistant professor of atmospheric sciences and biology. "A number of studies assume that plant water needs are staying constant, when what we know about plants growing in lots of carbon dioxide suggests the opposite."

She is lead author of the study published the week of Aug. 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Recent studies have estimated that more than 70 percent of our planet will experience more drought as carbon dioxide levels quadruple from pre-industrial levels over about the next 100 years. But when Swann and her co-authors account for changes in plants' water needs, this falls to 37 percent, with bigger differences concentrated in certain regions.

"It's a significant effect," Swann said. The reason is that when Earth's atmosphere holds more carbon dioxide, plants actually benefit from having more of the molecules they need to build their carbon-rich bodies. Plants take in carbon dioxide through tiny openings, called stomata, that cover their leaves. But as they draw in carbon dioxide, moisture escapes. When carbon dioxide is more plentiful, the stomata don't need to be open for as long, and so the plants lose less water. The plants thus draw less water from the soil through their roots.

Global climate models already account for these changes in plant growth. But many estimates of future drought use today's standard indices, like the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which only consider atmospheric variables such as future temperature, humidity and precipitation.

"I had a very strong suspicion that you would get a different answer if you considered how the plants were responding," Swann said.

The study compares today's drought indices with ones that take into account changes in plant water use.

It confirms that reduced precipitation will increase droughts across southern North America, southern Europe and northeastern South America. But the results show that in Central Africa and temperate Asia -- including China, the Middle East, East Asia and most of Russia -- water conservation by plants will largely counteract the parching due to climate change.

Planners will need accurate long-term drought predictions to design future water supplies, anticipate ecosystem stresses, project wildfire risks and decide where to locate agricultural fields.

"In some sense there's an easy solution to this problem, which is we just have to create new metrics that take into account what the plants are doing," Swann said. "We already have the information to do that; we just have to be more careful about ensuring that we're considering the role of the plants."

Is this good news for climate change? Although the drying may be less extreme than in some current estimates, droughts will certainly increase, researchers said, and other aspects of climate change could have severe effects on vegetation.

"There's a lot we don't know, especially about hot droughts," Swann said. The same drought at a higher temperature might have more severe impacts, she noted, or might make plants more stressed and susceptible to pests. "Even if droughts are not extremely more prevalent or frequent, they may be more deadly when they do happen," she said.
-end-
The co-authors are Forrest Hoffman at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Charles Koven at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and James Randerson at the University of California, Irvine. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

For more information, contact Swann at 206-616-0486 or aswann@uw.edu.

University of Washington

Related Climate Change Articles:

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.
Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.
Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.
Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.
A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
Predicting climate change
Thomas Crowther, ETH Zurich identifies long-disappeared forests available for restoration across the world.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Making Amends
What makes a true apology? What does it mean to make amends for past mistakes? This hour, TED speakers explore how repairing the wrongs of the past is the first step toward healing for the future. Guests include historian and preservationist Brent Leggs, law professor Martha Minow, librarian Dawn Wacek, and playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler).
Now Playing: Science for the People

#566 Is Your Gut Leaking?
This week we're busting the human gut wide open with Dr. Alessio Fasano from the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. Join host Anika Hazra for our discussion separating fact from fiction on the controversial topic of leaky gut syndrome. We cover everything from what causes a leaky gut to interpreting the results of a gut microbiome test! Related links: Center for Celiac Research and Treatment website and their YouTube channel
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Flag and the Fury
How do you actually make change in the world? For 126 years, Mississippi has had the Confederate battle flag on their state flag, and they were the last state in the nation where that emblem remained "officially" flying.  A few days ago, that flag came down. A few days before that, it coming down would have seemed impossible. We dive into the story behind this de-flagging: a journey involving a clash of histories, designs, families, and even cheerleading. This show is a collaboration with OSM Audio. Kiese Laymon's memoir Heavy is here. And the Hospitality Flag webpage is here.