A team of scientists from the Carnegie Institute of Science has discovered that global photosynthesis levels have risen over the past 200 years, according to new findings outlined in the journal Nature.
Photosynthesis — by which plants break down sunlight into usable energy — is an important process for many different organisms across the world. However, scientists have never been able to accurately measure how much is occurring across Earth at any one time. Past research has looked the different ways human activities have affected the process in certain areas, but nobody has been able to see the bigger picture, UPI reports.
That is, until now.
“Previous studies covered small physical areas or short periods of time,” said lead author Elliot Campbell, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Merced, in a statement. “We set out to find a long-term record for the whole planet.”
The team found that the global photosynthesis rate has risen more than 30 percent over the last two centuries. To figure this out, they measured the levels of carbonyl sulfide — a relative of CO2 that plants remove from the air during photosynthesis — in layers of Arctic snow. This revealed the steady increase.
Researchers are not sure what caused the bump. However, computer models show that it is likely related to global warming. Climate change triggers photosynthesis because higher CO2 concentrations lead to both longer growing seasons and the nitrogen pollution that fuels plant growth.
Though this increase may seem like good news, the team says the data means exactly the opposite. Plants act as a natural barrier to increased CO2 levels, but the recent spike has been too great for them to handle. This research acts as yet another reminder that humans are the only ones who can bring an end to the negative effects of global warming.
“It may be tempting to interpret these results as evidence that Earth’s dynamics are responding in a way that will naturally stabilize CO2 concentrations and climate,” said co-author Joe Berry, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science, in a statement. “But the real message is that the increase in photosynthesis has not been large enough to compensate for the burning of fossil fuels. Nature’s brakes are not up to the job. So now it’s up to us to figure out how to reduce the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.”