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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2018-10-25 16:35:20
    • Article ID: 702849

    Improving Climate Models to Account for Plant Behavior Yields 'Goodish' News

    Berkeley Lab study finds weaker land-climate feedbacks when accounting more fully for nutrient uptake by plants

    • Credit: Berkeley Lab

      Photosynthesis-inactive period nutrient uptake is a large proportion of annual uptake globally. This map shows the fraction of annual plant nitrogen uptake that occurs during photosynthesis-inactive periods.

    Climate scientists have not been properly accounting for what plants do at night, and that, it turns out, is a mistake. A new study from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has found that plant nutrient uptake in the absence of photosynthesis affects greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. 

    In a study published today in Nature Climate Change, lead author William Riley demonstrates how to improve climate models to more accurately represent land biogeochemical dynamics. Using a new global land model they developed and integrated in DOE’s Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM), Riley and his team found that plants can uptake more carbon dioxide and soils lose less nitrous oxide than previously thought. Their global simulations imply weaker terrestrial ecosystem feedbacks with the atmosphere than current models predict.

    “This is goodish news, with respect to what is currently in the climate models,” said Riley, a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Earth & Environmental Sciences Area. “But it’s not good news in general – it’s not going to solve the problem. No matter what, plants will not keep up with anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions; it’s just that they might do better than current models suggest.”

    Humans have emitted a record-setting 34 gigatons of CO2 per year, averaged over the past decade. Roughly half of that remains in the atmosphere, while the rest is absorbed by oceans and land (through photosynthesis); the latter amount, called the terrestrial carbon sink, varies year to year depending on factors such as fires, drought, land use, and weather.

    Scientists are trying to understand how increasing global carbon dioxide emissions will affect the terrestrial carbon sink, which is estimated to currently be between 0 and 11 gigatons of CO2 per year, including land-use change, with large inter-annual variability. A further complication involves terrestrial nitrous oxide, which is a powerful greenhouse gas naturally released from land and by agricultural and industrial activities. In other words, to what extent will plants be able to ameliorate increases in anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions?

    The new Berkeley Lab study found that by not properly accounting for what plants do at night and during the non-growing season, climate models may be underestimating the terrestrial carbon sink and overestimating nitrous oxide release, the latter by 2.4 gigatons of CO2-equivalent per year. “This number is substantial compared to the current terrestrial carbon sink,” Riley said, anywhere from roughly one-quarter to more than 100 percent, depending on the year.

    Plant-microbe competition for nutrients

    Plants’ ability to take in carbon dioxide is limited by the availability of soil nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorous. The more abundant nutrients are, the more plants can take advantage of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Microbes in the soil are a factor too because they compete with plants for nutrients. 

    Microbes, in fact, play an important role in the carbon cycle, and interactions between plants, soil, and microbes are complex, presenting a challenge to climate scientists. Most climate models assume that plants compete for nutrients in the soil only when they’re demanding it for photosynthesis, and not, for example, at night or in non-growing seasons.

    “What most climate models have ignored is this pretty robust observational literature showing plants acquire nitrogen from soil even when they’re not photosynthesizing,” Riley said.

    Berkeley Lab has been focused on the topic of plant-soil-microbe interactions through its Microbes to Biomes initiative, and it will be a core theme of the Biological and Environmental Program Integration Center, or BioEPIC, a proposed facility that would house one-of-a-kind experimental capabilities to advance DOE’s mission objectives in energy and environmental science. One aim is to represent and study these processes at scale and in a controlled way.

    “This study demonstrates progress in more mechanistically representing the terrestrial processes that are important for climate and will be important for BioEPIC,” Riley said.

    Lower nitrous oxide emissions

    In this study, Berkeley Lab researcher Qing Zhu, a co-author of the paper, conducted a meta-analysis of 120 experiments of short-term nitrogen uptake by plants to test their new global land model, named ELMv1. “We also compared observations of nutrient uptake at nighttime versus daytime and across non-growing seasons,” Riley said. “We’re pretty confident that the basic mechanisms in the model are correct and this meta-analysis and individual site observations back that up.”

    They found that a significant portion of nutrient uptake takes place in the absence of photosynthesis as plants and microbes compete for nutrients. “The amounts vary a lot by latitude, but in the higher latitudes, such as the Arctic, roughly 20 percent of plants’ annual nitrogen uptake occurs outside the growing season. That goes up to 55 percent for nighttime uptake in the tropics,” he said. “That’s a huge deal for plants and will facilitate atmospheric carbon uptake, and it’s currently completely ignored in most climate models.”

    “This type of model improvement will help us better understand implications of future CO2 emissions,” Riley said.

    An additional co-author of the paper, “Weaker Land-Climate Feedbacks from Nutrient Uptake During Photosynthesis-Inactive Periods,” was Berkeley Lab scientist Jinyun Tang. The study was funded by DOE’s Office of Science. 

    # # #

    Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit www.lbl.gov

    DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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    Microbes Eat the Same in Labs and the Desert

    Analyses of natural communities forming soil crusts agree with laboratory studies of isolated microbe-metabolite relationships.

    Scientists Produce 3-D Chemical Maps of Single Bacteria

    Scientists at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II)--a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory--have used ultrabright x-rays to image single bacteria with higher spatial resolution than ever before. Their work, published in Scientific Reports, demonstrates an x-ray imaging technique, called x-ray fluorescence microscopy (XRF), as an effective approach to produce 3-D images of small biological samples.

    Self-Sensing Materials Are Here

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers invented a way to make a nanomaterial-embedded composite that is stronger than other fiber-reinforced composites and imbued with a new capability--the ability to monitor its own structural health.

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    Opening Access to Explore the Synthetic Chemistry of Neptunium

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    Climate Simulations Project Wetter, Windier Hurricanes

    New supercomputer simulations by climate scientists at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have shown that climate change intensified the amount of rainfall in recent hurricanes such as Katrina, Irma, and Maria by 5 to 10 percent. They further found that if those hurricanes were to occur in a future world that is warmer than present, those storms would have even more rainfall and stronger winds.

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    New design coats molecular components and dramatically improves stability under tough, oxidizing conditions.

    X-Rays Show How Periods of Stress Changed an Ice Age Hyena to the Bone

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    Turning Wood Scraps into Tape

    A new chemical process converts a component of wasted wood pulp and other biomass into high-value pressure-sensitive adhesives.


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    Argonne's Min Si receives early career award from IEEE Computer Society

    Argonne's Min Si wins Award for Excellence for Early Career Researchers in High Performance Computing through the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

    Jefferson Lab Director Appointed to Distinguished Professorship

    Stuart Henderson, director of the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, has been appointed the Governor's Distinguished CEBAF professor at Old Dominion University. The position is supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia and is named for the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, which is the main research facility located at Jefferson Lab.

    DOE issues call for HPC for Energy Innovation proposals

    The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) High Performance Computing for Energy Innovation (HPC4EI) Initiative today issued its first joint solicitation for the High Performance Computing for Manufacturing Program (HPC4Mfg) and the High Performance Computing for Materials Program (HPC4Mtls).

    DOE funding advances project to turn captured CO2 into key chemicals

    The U.S. Department of Energy has selected Southern Research for an award of up to $1.5 million to advance technology for carbon dioxide utilization.

    Sierra Reaches Higher Altitudes, Takes Number Two Spot on List of Fastest Supercomputers

    Sierra, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's newest supercomputer, rose to second place on the list of the world's fastest computing systems, TOP500 List representatives announced Monday at the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis conference (SC18) in Dallas.

    Green energy: Wind energy agreement will provide savings, 50 percent of electricity needs for Kansas State University Manhattan campus

    Kansas State University has signed an agreement with Westar Energy to provide approximately 50 percent of the energy needs for the university's main Manhattan campus from a wind farm in Nemaha County and save the university nearly $200,000 annually.

    INCITE grants awarded to 62 computational research projects

    The U.S. Department of Energy announced new projects for 2019 through its Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program.

    Argonne's Raj Kettimuthu Named ACM Distinguished Member

    Argonne computer scientist Raj Kettimuthu recently was named a Distinguished Member of the Association for Computing Machinery for his development of tools to analyze and enhance end-to-end data transfer performance.

    Jefferson Lab-Affiliated Researchers Honored as APS Fellows

    The Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility now has a few more fellows on campus. The American Physical Society, a professional membership society that works on behalf of the physics community, recently announced its list of 2018 fellowships.

    Jefferson Lab Receives DOE Award for Energy Efficient Upgrade

    On Oct. 23, a team from the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility was honored at the 2018 Federal Energy and Water Management Award Ceremony for upgrades made to the lab's data center, ultimately improving its energy efficiency.


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    Microbes Eat the Same in Labs and the Desert

    Analyses of natural communities forming soil crusts agree with laboratory studies of isolated microbe-metabolite relationships.

    Diverse Biofeedstocks Have High Ethanol Yields and Offer Biorefineries Flexibility

    Evidence suggests that biorefineries can accept various feedstocks without negatively impacting the amount of ethanol produced per acre.

    Opening Access to Explore the Synthetic Chemistry of Neptunium

    New, easily prepared starting material opens access to learning more about a difficult-to-control element in nuclear waste.

    Tiny Titanium Barrier Halts Big Problem in Fuel-Producing Solar Cells

    New design coats molecular components and dramatically improves stability under tough, oxidizing conditions.

    Turning Wood Scraps into Tape

    A new chemical process converts a component of wasted wood pulp and other biomass into high-value pressure-sensitive adhesives.

    Very Heavy Elements Deliver More Electrons

    Scientists revise understanding of the limits of bonding for very electron-rich heavy elements.

    Probing Water's "No-Man's Land" Temperature Region

    Measuring the physical properties of water at previously unexplored temperatures offers insights into one of the world's essential liquids.

    Novel Soil Bacteria with Unusual Genes Synthesize Unique Antibiotic Precursors

    A large-scale soil project uncovered genetic information from bacteria with the capacity to make specialized molecules that could lead to new pharmaceuticals.

    Warmer Temperatures Lengthen Growing Season, Increase Plants' Vulnerability to Frost

    Experimental warming treatments show how peatland forests may respond to future environmental change.

    Rising Stars Seek to Learn from the Master: Mother Nature

    A trio of scientists was recognized for their early career successes in uncovering how microbes produce fuel, insights that could change our energy portfolio


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