Ancient remains shed light on how plants will cope with higher CO2 levels


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We are all aware of the climate change that is taking place in the world today. CO2 levels are rising and average temperatures are increasing. How this will pan out for humankind remains to be seen as we have no idea how our bodies and the parts of the world that we rely on will adapt. It is clear that we are one part of a very fragile ecosystem and we can expect any meaningful changes at a global level to have significant repercussions. A recent discovery in an ancient volcanic crater of New Zealand may be able to provide a clue.

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The Earth goes through warming and cooling periods. While mankind has a serious part to play in the current warming of the planet and work must be done to stall our negative impact on the world, there are other factors too. In the past CO2 levels were higher than they are now and humanity has actually existed on Earth in what can be described as a low CO2 time. A discovery in New Zealand has revealed some biological artifacts that date back to the higher CO2 times and may help to understand how plant life will respond.

If you can remember your first-year science class you will know that plants feed on CO2 as part of their photosynthesis and use it to grow. In theory, an increase in CO2 may mean a higher supply of ingredients that plants need. Good news right? Maybe! The research in New Zealand has found many leaves, plants, algae, as well as animals like spiders, beetles, flies, and fungi. These things were in a way mummified in the Earth for many many years. Scientists have dated the findings and they go all the way back to the early Miocene Epoch. The Miocene Epoch lasted from 23 million years ago to 5 million years ago, which means these leaves are very old. 

The Miocene Epoch was known as a warm period when temperatures were around 7 degrees higher than now and CO2 levels were higher as well. The plants that have been found allow us to see exactly what the carbon content was at that time in the atmosphere. In previous studies of marine findings, it was estimated that there was a CO2 level of 330 parts per million. This didn’t make sense to scientists as it is a lower CO2 level than we have today, yet temperatures were higher. The latest findings in New Zealand suggest a ppm of 450, a range that the world is forecast to reach in forthcoming decades. 

Even more remarkable is that when biologists studied the leaves they found that they were designed with incredible efficiency at consuming carbon. This meant that many plants and trees could grow in areas that would today be deemed too dry and arid for plant life to grow. This is clearly a positive note for the future of humanity. While we worry about the impact of the warming temperatures on the world around us, it appears that plants will not only survive but thrive. Experts say it is not so straight forward.

Instead, they say that plants today exist in a low CO2 environment and it is not as simple as flicking a switch to move to a higher CO2 environment. This change will put stress on plant life. Similar to humans, while some plants will respond well to the stress others will die out. This means that we can not be certain how our ecosystem will respond to the changing CO2 levels. Over time it is likely that plant life will do well but there may be a period of adjustment. That period of adjustment could last a very long time and could be enough to kill our entire ecosystem. Only time will tell.