Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels Are Making the Planet Greener

April 28, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Change in leaf area across the globe. Satellite imagery
Photo credit: Boston University/R. Myneni

This is not as good as it sounds.

Normally when you hear about rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere you think about higher temperatures and rising sea levels, but it turns out there is another consequence to humans pumping out so much CO2.

In a new study titled "Greening of the Earth and its Drivers" published in the journal Nature Climate Change, an international team of 32 scientists who studied 33 years of data from the NASA-MODIS and NOAA-AVHRR satellites state that Earth is getting significantly greener as a result of rising CO2 levels.

This greening represents an increase in leaves on plants and trees, resulting from a process known as the carbon-fertilization effect. Green leaves produce sugars using energy from the sun to mix CO2 in the air with water and nutrients from the ground, aka photosynthesis. But more sugars are produced when there is more CO2 in the air, resulting in faster growing trees and crops, particularly in warmer climates.

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Due to the amount of carbon that has been emitted into the atmosphere, there has been an enormous increase in the amount of vegetation over the surface of the planet. According to the study, vegetation now covers 32 percent of Earth’s total surface area, occupying 85 percent of all the ice-free land.

"The greening over the past 33 years reported in this study is equivalent to adding a green continent about two times the size of mainland USA (18 million km2), and has the ability to fundamentally change the cycling of water and carbon in the climate system," said one of the team members, Zaichun Zhu from Peking University in China, in a press release.

You may be thinking a greener planet is a good thing for both humans and the environment because plants are absorbing more CO2. However, scientists warn that this side effect of high carbon levels will be temporary, and won’t help protect against other outcomes of climate change like severe weather, higher temperatures, and rising sea levels.

"Studies have shown that plants acclimatize, or adjust, to rising carbon dioxide concentration and the fertilization effect diminishes over time," said Philippe Ciais from the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in France.

Although the detection of the planet’s greening is based on satellite measurements, what drives this greening, which is not limited to just CO2 but also includes nitrogen, land cover change, precipitation, and sunlight, is based on models which have known deficiencies. Future studies will need to be completed to validate the team’s results.

However, the study serves as another reminder of why it is important to lower our carbon emissions.

You can see this greening for yourself in the video below.


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