Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Research Finds Vapors From Coniferous Trees Could Help Slow Global Warming

Climate
Research Finds Vapors From Coniferous Trees Could Help Slow Global Warming

By Hannah Hickey

Pine forests are especially magical places for atmospheric chemists. Coniferous trees give off pine-scented vapors that form particles, very quickly and seemingly out of nowhere.

Forests are thought to emit many more of these scented compounds as temperatures rise, potentially slowing effects of global warming.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

New research by German, Finnish and U.S. scientists elucidates the process by which gas wafting from coniferous trees creates particles that can reflect sunlight or promote cloud formation, both important climate feedbacks. The study is published Feb. 27 in Nature.

“In many forested regions, you can go and observe particles apparently form from thin air. They’re not emitted from anything, they just appear,” said Joel Thornton, a University of Washington associate professor of atmospheric sciences and second author on the paper.

The study shows the chemistry behind these particles’ formation, and estimates they may be the dominant source of aerosols over boreal forests. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has named aerosols generally one of the biggest unknowns for climate change.

Scientists have known for decades that gases from pine trees can form particles that grow from just one nanometer in size to 100 nanometers in about a day. These airborne solid or liquid particles can reflect sunlight, and at 100 nanometers they are large enough to condense water vapor and prompt cloud formation.

In the new paper, researchers took measurements in Finnish pine forests and then simulated the same particle formation in an air chamber at Germany’s Jülich Research Centre. A new type of chemical mass spectrometry let researchers pick out one in a trillion molecules and follow their evolution.

Results showed that when a pine-scented molecule combines with ozone in the surrounding air, some of the resulting free radicals grab oxygen with unprecedented speed.

“The radical is so desperate to become a regular molecule again that it reacts with itself," Thornton said. "The new oxygen breaks off a hydrogen from a neighboring carbon to keep for itself, and then more oxygen comes in to where the hydrogen was broken off.”

The reaction chamber at the Juelich Plant Atmosphere Chamber. Photo credit: Felipe Lopez-Hilfiker/ University of Washington

Current chemistry would predict that three to five oxygen molecules could be added per day during oxidation, Thornton said. But researchers observed the free radical adding 10 to 12 oxygen molecules in a single step. This new, bigger molecule wants to be in a solid or liquid state, rather than gas, and condenses onto small particles of just three nanometers. Researchers found so many of these molecules are produced that they can clump together and grow to a size big enough to influence climate.

“I think unravelling that chemistry is going to have some profound impacts on how we describe atmospheric chemistry generally,” Thornton said.

Lead author Mikael Ehn did the work as a postdoctoral researcher in Germany, working in the group of co-author Thomas Mentel. Ehn is now based at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

Boreal or coniferous forests give off the largest amount of these compounds, so the finding is especially relevant for the northern parts of North America, Europe and Russia. Other types of forests emit similar vapors, Thornton said, and he believes the rapid oxidation may apply to a broad range of atmospheric compounds.

“I think a lot of missing puzzle pieces in atmospheric chemistry will start to fall into place once we incorporate this understanding,” Thornton said.

Forests are thought to emit exponentially more of these scented compounds as temperatures rise. Understanding how those vapors react could help to predict how forested regions will respond to global warming, and what role they will play in the planet’s response.

In related work, Thornton’s group was part of a campaign last summer to study air chemistry over the Southeastern U.S., where aerosols formed by reforested areas or from pollution could help explain why that region has not warmed as much as other places.

“It’s thought that as the Earth warms there will be more of these vapors emitted, and some fraction of them will be converted to particles which can potentially shade the Earth’s surface,” Thornton said. “How effective that is at temperature regulation is still very much an open question.”

The 33 co-authors also include Felipe Lopez-Hilfiker and Ben Lee, both at the University of Washington, and researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the Institute for Tropospheric Research in Germany, Aerodyne Research Inc. in Massachusetts and Tampere University of Technology in Finland.

The research was funded by the European Research Council, Academy of Finland Center of Excellence, U.S. Department of Energy and the Emil Aaltonen Foundation.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Financial institutions in New York state will now have to consider the climate-related risks of their planning strategies. Ramy Majouji / WikiMedia Commons

By Brett Wilkins

Regulators in New York state announced Thursday that banks and other financial services companies are expected to plan and prepare for risks posed by the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less

Trending

There are many different CBD oil brands in today's market. But, figuring out which brand is the best and which brand has the strongest oil might feel challenging and confusing. Our simple guide to the strongest CBD oils will point you in the right direction.

Read More Show Less
The left image shows the OSIRIS-REx collector head hovering over the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) after the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism arm moved it into the proper position for capture. The right image shows the collector head secured onto the capture ring in the SRC. NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona / Lockheed Martin

A NASA spacecraft has successfully collected a sample from the Bennu asteroid more than 200 million miles away from Earth. The samples were safely stored and will be preserved for scientists to study after the spacecraft drops them over the Utah desert in 2023, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Read More Show Less
Exxon Mobil Refinery is seen from the top of the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on March 5, 2017. WClarke / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 4.0

Exxon Mobil will lay off an estimated 14,000 workers, about 15% of its global workforce, including 1,900 workers in the U.S., the company announced Thursday.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch