NASA study finds tiny particles in air may influence carbon sinks

A NASA-funded study provides direct measurements confirming aerosols, tiny particles in the atmosphere, may be changing how much carbon plants and ecosystems absorb from or release to the air.

The research is important for understanding climate change and the various factors that influence how much carbon gets transferred from the air into belowground carbon sinks. Carbon dioxide acts as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

The study reported that the effects of aerosols on overall carbon exchange might be more significant than clouds. Cloud cover tended to reflect the sun's radiation back out to space, reducing the overall amount of light to Earth's surface. As a result, less sunlight on plants caused less photosynthesis to occur.

The study, which benefited from NASA satellite data, focused on six sites around the country. The sites represented a wide variety of landscapes, including forests, crops, and grassland. When aerosol levels were high, the amount of carbon absorbed by an ecosystem increased for forest and croplands, and decreased for grasslands. The study appeared in a recent issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

Lead author Dev Niyogi, a research assistant professor at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C., and colleagues, suggested the effect of aerosols on the overall exchange of carbon dioxide by ecosystems may be greater than the effects of clouds on these processes.

"We were very excited to find direct observational evidence that one variable, the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere, can have such a significant effect on something so complex as an ecosystem's carbon exchange," Niyogi said.

The researchers used data from NASA's AERONET (AErosol RObotic NETwork) and the AmeriFlux network. AERONET provided data on the amount of aerosols in the air. From AmeriFlux, Niyogi and colleagues were able to measure the exchange of CO2 between the air and an ecosystem.


Contact: Rob Gutro
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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