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Cranking Up the Carbon: Researchers Expose a Forest to Our Future's Conditions

Jul 28, 2014 04:48 PM EDT
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A new facility is being launched that will expose natural woodland to raised carbon dioxide levels, simulating conditions expected in the near future. This research is expected to give conversationalists and policy makers a look at future troubles the world's forests will face. 

The University of Birmingham has reportedly secured initial funding to support 10 years of a free-air carbon dioxide enrichment (FACE) experiment at its brand new Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR).

According to the university, this FACE experiment will expose a mature forest to a high-carbon environment that reflects conditions expected in the not-so-distant future, based on numerous and widely accepted carbon burden projections.

According to a Q&A between BIFoR head Rob Mackenzie and New Scientist's Adrian Barnett, this FACE experiment will be specifically exposing an isolated patch of woodland to carbon dioxide (CO2) levels expected 75 years from now, and will run for 10 to 20 years.

Mackenzie told Barnett that the BIFoR was fortunate to have come across adequate funding, as experiments like these require a massive amount of space, equipment, and staff. This then begged the question, "why all the hubbub?" Couldn't this be done in a lab?

"You can learn a lot about how plants respond to changing CO2 using greenhouses, plant growth chambers, even cell lines," Mackenzie admitted. "But in nature 1+1 has a habit of not equalling 2, so you need to take away the walls, the fake growing media, the artificial climate and watch actual nature working. FACE is Gaia science, if you like."

Of course, this isn't the only FACE experiment out there. The Climate Change Science Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory launched a FACE experiment in 1996 that lasted into late 2011. That study, which exposed a canopied forest to lower levels of CO2 than the BIFoR study, found that forests may actually benefit from elevated carbon levels, as fine root growth was stimulated in the wake of higher CO2 levels, allowing the trees to gain deeper access to mineral nitrogen in the soil.

However, other FACE studies on crops have found that the good doesn't outweigh the bad. A meta-analysis of FACE projects published in 2004 found that CO2 elevations resulted in an only 5 to 8 percent increase in crop productivity - certainly not enough to offset decreases in crop yield and population caused by rising temperatures.

The BIFoR reports that it will be working "in close collaboration with the few other forest FACE facilities currently in operation, to provide a truly global assessment of the resilience of forests in a changed climate."

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