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New Research Finds Plants Will Feast on Increased CO2, But Only Until 2100

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Scientists studying plants' ability to gobble up carbon from the atmosphere have found that plants will offer protection from greenhouse gases for another 80 years. Beyond 2100, they are not sure if carbon levels will become so high that that plants will reach a breaking point where they can no longer remove carbon from the air, as Newsweek reported.


The researchers note that the vital role trees play in absorbing carbon means preserving forests should be a global priority. The study by a Stanford-led team of scientists and published in the journal Nature Climate Change sought to predict whether or not trees will be able to absorb greenhouse gasses in the future at their current rate.

Right now, plants act a lot like the title character in Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. Trees are endlessly generous as they filter our air and slow the climate crisis by absorbing about a quarter of the greenhouse gasses emitted due to human activity. They purify our water, nurture our soil and cool us down. Yet, like the character in the children's book, there ability to give is limited. And, as we start to overfeed them with carbon dioxide and deprive them of a balanced diet with nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil, their ability to help us will decline, as the study authors wrote in Scientific American.

The researchers analyzed 138 existing studies on grassland, land used for crops, shrubland and forests with levels of elevated carbon dioxide. They covered a broad range of experiments from growing plants in special chambers to fumigating forests with carbon dioxide. The scientists also weighed the symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi, and data on soil nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which trees rely on to turn carbon dioxide into food, as Newsweek reported.

Increased atmospheric CO2 levels should increase the biomass of plants by 12 percent in the next 80 years. That is to say, they will fatten up. Yet, if nitrogen and phosphorous levels do not rise at a commensurate level, plants will be overwhelmed and sick from too much carbon — much like a person eating too much sugar instead of a balanced diet. The uncertainty around how much additional CO2 trees will be able to take up in the future makes it difficult for the scientists to predict future global warming patterns, as Earth.com reported.

"If plants can't take up additional nitrogen and phosphorus through their roots to balance their diet, they aren't able to use as much of the extra CO2," wrote the study authors in Scientific American.

"We were pleased to find that forests appear likely to grow even faster in the future as a result of CO2 fertilization," said Rob Jackson, professor in Earth System Science at Stanford and one of the study's authors, to Newsweek

However, Jackson added that the amount of carbon dioxide used by trees isn't enough to halt climate change. "They aren't, and won't be, a substitute for the first order of business — cutting fossil fuel emissions," he said.

"Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the best way to limit further warming," said study lead author César Terrer, a postdoctoral scholar in Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, in a university press release. "But stopping deforestation and preserving forests so they can grow more is our next-best solution."

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.