Warmer nights due to climate change could raise the carbon content in the atmosphere

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, co-authored by Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow William Kolby Smith, found insights about the variabilty in the terrestrial carbon sink of tropical ecosystems due to nighttime warming.

Earth’s ecosystems absorb about a quarter of carbon from the atmosphere, and tropical forests account for about one-third of land-based plant productivity. However, the proportion of the tropics’s carbn storage capacity may be vulnerable to projected increases in tropical nighttime temperatures, as reported by the researchers in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By combining high-resolution climate and satellite-imaging data, the researchers analyzed which climate factors had the most effect on the carbon sink’s interannual variability, including rainfall, drought and daytime temperatures. They found that tropical nighttime temperatures, which have risen by about 0.6 degrees Celsius (33 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1959, have the strongest association with interannual variability.

The impacts of warmer nighttime temperatures

First author William Anderegg, an associate research scholar in the Princeton Environmental Institute, explained that he and his colleagues determined that warm nighttime temperatures lead plants to put more carbon into the atmosphere through a process known as respiration.

Just as warm nights make people more active, so too does it for plants. Although plants take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they also internally consume sugars to stay alive. That process, known as respiration, produces carbon dioxide, which plants step up in warm weather, Anderegg said. The researchers found that yearly variations in the carbon sink strongly correlated with variations in plant respiration.

“When you heat up a system, biological processes tend to increase,” Anderegg said. “At hotter temperatures, plant respiration rates go up and this is what’s happening during hot nights. Plants lose a lot more carbon than they would during cooler nights.”

Climate vulnerability in the tropics may be larger than previously thought

Previous research has shown that nighttime temperatures have risen significantly faster as a result of climate change than daytime temperatures. This means that in future climate scenarios respiration rates could increase to the point that the land is putting more carbon into the atmosphere than it’s taking out of it.

Of course, plants consume carbon dioxide as a part of photosynthesis, during which they convert sunlight into energy. While photosynthesis also is sensitive to rises in temperature, it only happens during the day, whereas respiration occurs at all hours and thus is more sensitive to nighttime warming, Anderegg said.

“Nighttime temperatures have been increasing faster than daytime temperatures and will continue to rise faster,” Anderegg said. “This suggests that tropical ecosystems might be more vulnerable to climate change than previously thought, risking crossing the threshold from a carbon sink to a carbon source. But there’s certainly potential for plants to acclimate their respiration rates and that’s an area that needs future study.”

Blog post courtesy of Princeton University.