Plants taking in more toxins Scientist tracks effects of global warming on the environment

August 12, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

The friendly tree doctor peers through his pop-bottle eyeglasses and asks that proverbial pick-your-poison question: "You want the good news first or the bad news first?"

For more than a decade, Bert Drake has been studying the effects of global warming and increased carbon-dioxide levels on the earth's ecosystems. On one hand, the Anne Arundel County scientist talks about the standard gloom-and-doom findings about the dire consequences of deforestation, traffic emissions and the burning of fossil fuels. On the other hand, he's found an unexpectedly bright side to the world's environmental woes.

Sound boring, scientifically complicated, way over your head? Spend an hour with this engaging, world-renowned plant physiologist, and he'll change your mind.

Every once in a while you will catch Drake saying things such as, "Carbon dioxide is the first molecular link between the atmosphere and the food chain of the biosphere." But mostly, he talks like a regular guy. "I like to put science in English, cut through the jargon and sort the meat from the fluff," he says.

Ask for the bad news first, and Drake will explain the problem of the earth's skyrocketing levels of carbon dioxide like this: "Our climate is an ugly beast, and with the amount of carbon dioxide we're pumping into the atmosphere, it's basically like we're poking that beast in the eye with a very sharp object."

OK, doc, so what's the good news?

"We're finding that certain plants, trees in particular, are responding to increased levels of carbon dioxide by taking in more and more of that carbon dioxide and getting it out of the already-overloaded environment," Drake said.

And the amazing news?

Some plants -- like trees, wheat, many grasses and the majority of commercial crops -- actually benefit from the scourge of increased carbon-dioxide levels.

"Though no one would argue that global warming and increased levels of carbon dioxide are entirely good for the Earth, we are finding that some crops respond very well to those increased levels with higher yields and increased growth," he said. "The implication of that is that farmers could grow larger quantities of food on the same amount of land."

Drake -- who works at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, a world-leading scientific institute based in southern Anne Arundel County -- will present his findings tonight at a public lecture. His 12-year study -- being conducted in a salt marsh in the Chesapeake Bay region as well as on scrub oak trees at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- is considered one of the longest-running of its kind in the world.

No doubt, the study is complex, high-tech, outrageously scientific. But Drake is a master at making his work understandable to those without a doctorate in biology.

Here's the basic idea:

The burning of fossil fuels and mass deforestation are leading to ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, which in turn is leading to problematic global warming.

Drake is finding that some plants are acclimating to the high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide by drawing increased amounts of the gas out of the air, actually becoming faster-growing, more efficient and healthier.

By process of natural selection, those plants and trees which acclimate well are likely to overgrow the varieties that don't, potentially changing the face of the world's vegetation. To put it simply, some trees and plants might actually be saving us from ourselves.

"The old 'plant a tree, save the world' idea may not be too far off base," Drake said with a laugh.

But the Maryland scientist says he walks a very fine line with his research and the way he presents his findings.

Drake doesn't want to be dubbed a tree-hugger any more than he wants to be known as a nothing-but-good-news guy. He doesn't want to shed doubt on his findings by appearing to have an environmental agenda. And he doesn't want to minimize valid concerns about global warming by suggesting that increased levels of carbon dioxide are actually more beneficial for the Earth than they are harmful.

"My findings could be interpreted to mean that we have nothing to worry about, and that's just not true," he said. "We have an awful lot to worry about, for all practical purposes. What is happening to the environment is not to be taken lightly. But if we have to look at a bright side, it's the opportunities presented from increased levels of carbon dioxide. And the positive effects on some plants is certainly a big opportunity."

Drake's findings have been well-published and are highly regarded. His articles have been in many of the top environmental journals -- Functional Ecology and Water, Air and Soil Pollution. Much of Drake's research is funded through the federal Department of Energy, which spends about $5 million a year on environmental studies.

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