Claim: The United States absorbed carbon dioxide despite a drought

“{Climate researchers suspected that this summer drought four years ago could turn the contiguous United States into a carbon source.”

The media release is below.


The United States absorbed carbon dioxide despite a drought

In the US, spring 2012 was the warmest on record. The subsequent summer was dryer and hotter than any summer since the 1930s, a period that became known in the history books as the ‘Dust Bowl’. In 2012, drought and heat afflicted almost the entire contiguous United States.

Climate researchers suspected that this summer drought four years ago could turn the contiguous United States into a carbon source, as was the case in Europe during the hot summer of 2003. During a normal year, ecosystems take up more carbon from the air than they release. They therefore act as a carbon sink – an effect that plays an important role for the world’s climate.

This is because plants take up carbon dioxide (CO2) for growth during photosynthesis and then store it in the form of biomass and in the soil. Through this mechanism, ecosystems compensate for a third of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

A team of researchers from the US, Australia, the Netherlands and ETH Zurich have now shown that the contiguous United States remained a carbon sink in 2012, despite the drought. The study has just been published in the journal PNAS.

The researchers found that the warm spring caused trees, grasses and crops to start growing earlier in the year. The ecosystems thus absorpted more carbon from the air than during a «normal» spring.

However, during the subsequent drought, the ecosystems absorbed less carbon than usual, as the plants reduced growth due to the dry and hot conditions. Nevertheless, the overall carbon balance remained positive. “The increase in carbon uptake during the warm spring compensated for the reductions in uptake during the drought,” says ETH researcher Sebastian Wolf, who led the study.

Grasslands release CO2 during drought

Across the entire contiguous United States, the extensive forests of the Appalachians were a particularly effective carbon sink. These forests absorbed additional carbon during spring, and remained largely unaffected by drought during the summer months. On the other hand, the grasslands of the Midwest also absorbed more carbon during the warm spring but their uptake was substantially reduced during the summer drought, as the vegetation became senescent.

In addition, the scientists found indications that the drought and heat in summer 2012 in the US were probably intensified by a feedback mechanism from the warm spring: as the plants started growing earlier, they also depleted their soil water resources earlier in the year. The ecosystems were thus more susceptible to the drought in summer. And due to the water limitations, plants were forced to close their stomata sooner.

As long as plants have sufficient water, they keep the stomata on their leaves open to exchange CO2, water vapour and oxygen with the atmosphere. When water becomes scarce, they close their stomata and thus evaporate less water vapour. The missing effect of evaporative cooling then intensifies the heat and therefore the stress for the plants.

A unique combination of measured data

Wolf and his colleagues combined various sources of data for their analysis. The study incorporated measurements of environmental conditions from 22 locations across the US. The researchers used special towers to take continuous measurements for at least five years; these measurements included temperature, soil moisture, precipitation, and the exchange of carbon dioxide and water between the ecosystems and the atmosphere.

The scientists also used measurements from the satellite platform MODIS to determine the CO2 uptake of vegetation across the entire US. In addition, measurements of CO2 concentrations from tall towers with a height of up to 300 metres were combined with models in order to estimate the CO2 uptake from an atmospheric perspective.

Through a clever combination of these different datasets, the researchers were able to calculate the carbon exchange for the entire contiguous United States during 2012.


2 thoughts on “Claim: The United States absorbed carbon dioxide despite a drought”

  1. North America has been a net carbon sink for most of the last century. Reforestation in the 20th century replaced the forests logged and shipped to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. I haven’t seen calculations since 2000, but forest cover was still increasing at that time – although very slowly as there are only a few area in the west that are still recovering. Pretty much all timber harvesting in the US and Canada is now on a replacement cycle. Annual crop areas remain an massive annual sink dwarfing the fixation by trees, but much of this is recycled into CO2 on a quicker cycle. However, the continuing very large exports of corn, soy canola and wheat represent fixed carbon that is exported and should be included as a negative term in any equation showing US CO2 production.

  2. Last time I checked, the atmosphere wasn’t stationary. So how did they link the carbon uptake of an area with the CO2 levels measured from tall towers while removing that whole transition thing they call wind? So, while CO2 levels were rising globally (hence the cries to do something now!), they saw rising CO2 locally but assert that was due to the change in the uptake of the foliage and not due to anthropogenic sources? /confused puppydog look

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