Including plants' acclimation to changes in temperature could significantly improve the accuracy of climate models, a Purdue University study shows.
Plants are the largest drivers of carbon fluxes between land and the atmosphere, taking up and releasing carbon dioxide through the processes of photosynthesis and respiration. The rates at which these processes occur are sensitive to temperature and gradually adjust over time in response to long-term temperature shifts, a phenomenon known as acclimation.
Jeffrey Dukes, professor of forestry and natural resources and biological sciences, and a team of researchers found that adding formulas for acclimation into climate change models more closely aligns their simulations of carbon exchange with those observed in nature. The accuracy of model projections of carbon flux in tropical forests improved by 36 percent when acclimation was included.
"We want climate models to be as accurate as possible and represent the world in the way we know it to work," Dukes said. "We found that incorporating acclimation into a model helped it represent the tropics much more accurately. This won't dramatically reshape our big-picture understanding of climate change, but it gives us a better idea of how certain regions of the world will respond."
Because carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, it's important to accurately capture plant carbon exchange rates, said Dukes, who is also director of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center housed in Discovery Park. Less carbon stored in plants and soil means more carbon is in the atmosphere, leading to a warmer planet.