Ask Not What Plants Can Do for You but what You Can Do For Plants


It has been long-established that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a driving force behind the change in Earth’s temperature that has been observed in the past few centuries. A feasible solution to rising global temperatures, however, has not been established, but scientists are getting close.

Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee recently conducted a study in which they found that plants may absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than previously thought. In fact, they claim that many widely-accepted climate models for future generations are not entirely accurate because of their underestimation of how much atmospheric carbon dioxide is soaked up by Earth’s plant life. The reason behind these miscalculations is the fact that most climate models do not account for the way carbon dioxide diffuses inside the mesophyll tissue of a plant’s leaf. This has caused models to misjudge the total intake of carbon dioxide by plants by as much as 16%.

Figure 1 (

Figure 1 shows the anatomy of a plant leaf, which is an essential component in the process of photosynthesis. The palisade mesophyll towards the epidermis of the leaf contains many chloroplasts that are tall and closely packed to absorb maximum light. The spongy mesophyll towards the center of the leaf also captures light, but mainly serves to produce glucose and oxygen. The cells in the spongy mesophyll are relatively spread out, which allows for the diffusion of more carbon dioxide within plants.

Environmental scientists are currently trying to determine whether this 16% discrepancy is enough to slow down climate change and give humans enough time to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. While most news coverage and commentary has optimistically suggested that it might, many prominent scientists brush the newfound study off as meaningless from a big-picture perspective. Of these scientists is Oak Ridge Laboratory’s own Lianhong Gu, who asserts that, “…it (the 16% discrepancy) would not reduce the urgency of reducing (carbon dioxide) emissions. The climate change associated with fossil fuel use is much bigger than the response of plants to carbon dioxide.” Gu supports this claim by citing that the extra carbon dioxide stored in plants will follow the carbon cycle and eventually return to the atmosphere when the extra biomass dies. Martin Heimann, director of biogeochemical systems research at Germany’s Max Planck Biogeochemistry Institute makes a similar criticism by stating that, “…for the atmospheric carbon dioxide, only the net (land and ocean) uptake matters. If the land uptake is increased by a certain fraction, the land carbon release through respiration (the decay of dead biomass) will also increase.” Earth would need to at least double its land vegetation to keep up with carbon dioxide emissions, researchers say.

“Regardless of how much CO2 they soak up,” Gu says, “wild plants are a key ally in our quest to make civilization sustainable.” Scientists should concentrate their efforts on protecting plants rather than relying on them to protect the Earth. While it might not save the planet from global warming, Earth’s plant life will certainly soften the blow of climate change and provides many other ecosystem-related services beyond absorbing carbon dioxide. These services include the release of atmosphere cooling aerosols, the removal of toxic fumes from the air, and the production of life-saving medicines.

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Disrupting the Carbon Cycle is not the only thing Deforestation is Responsible for…

Africa supports approximately 30% of the forests in the world, with a large amount of these forests located in Upper Guinea and Lower Guinea (Congo). Yet, these forests have been subject to an immense amount of deforestation. Although deforestation provides people with goods and resources, it is terrible for the balance of the Carbon Cycle and our atmospheric layers. Trees have large amounts of Carbon in their wood, and therefore when they are cut or burned, CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Unless there are enough trees planted or grown to recapture the lost carbon, the exchange between trees and the atmosphere of CO2 is put out of balance, which is a cause of global warming.

Although global warming is a very popular and conversational topic, there is one topic that is stealing everyone’s attention. You guessed it, Ebola. Ebola is one of the most dangerous viruses in the world today, causing many symptoms, one being internal bleeding, and is most likely by followed death. Now, you may be asking, “What does Ebola have to do with deforestation in Guinea?” Well, this latest Ebola epidemic is believed to have started in one of the small towns in Guinea, and has now spread all over West Africa (See Figure 1.).

Map of Africa depicting Ebola Cases

Figure 1: This map of Africa Depicts what areas Ebola cases have been confirmed or suspected. The highlighted areas in red show where confirmed and probable cases of Ebola have been found. The tan highlighted areas show where suspected cases of Ebola are. As shown in the map, a lot of these highlighted areas are in the Guinea region, where the Ebola epidemic is believed to have started.

People in West Africa commonly eat Fruit Bats in stew, yet bats are known to be carriers of the Ebola Virus. Due to deforestation, many animals’ habitats are being destroyed, including bats. With bat’s habitats destroyed and human’s have moved into prior forest areas, the interactions between bats and people in West Africa has increased greatly. This increased interaction between humans and bats has also greatly increased the chance that one of the fruit bats that are eaten contained the virus Ebola, and sadly this event did occur. Yet, it did not just effect a few people in Guinea, it has spread all over West Africa, taking thousands of people’s lives, and is now spreading into other continents, such as the United States. While the CDC and other organizations are attempting to contain and control this outbreak, it has not had much effect, and the virus continues to spread rapidly.

Ebola, according to the World Health Organization, has already claimed AT LEAST 4,493 lives, and the number is increasing. Yet, what played a major role in this epidemic? It was human’s impact on the environment. Deforestation has claimed not only a vast amount of the forest biomes in West Africa since 1955, it has also claimed thousands of people’s lives. (displayed in Figure 2.),

West Africa Deforestation from 1955 to 1988

Figure 2. Shows West Africa in 1955 in the top picture and West Africa in 1988 in the bottom picture. The green represents where “closed forest cover,” or full forest, is, the dark yellow represents ‘Fragmented forest,” and the light yellow represents where deforestation has taken place. These two photos show how drastic deforestation has struck West Africa and therefore gives you an idea of how many animal habitats were destroyed and taken over by humans. The full picture of Africa on the bottom right also shows this by using the red areas to depict where deforestation has taken place. This also refers back to Figure 1. and shows how greatly West Africa and specifically Guinea was affected by deforestation.

While global warming did become a large controversy, hopefully this deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus that has ignited immense fear and panic can express to the public what serious effects humans have on the environment, and how what we do to the environment, can strike back on us.