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The Influence of Carboniferous Palaeoatmospheres on Plant Function: An Experimental and Modelling Assessment [and Discussion]

D. J. Beerling, F. I. Woodward, M. R. Lomas, M. A. Wills, W. P. Quick, P. J. Valdes, M. Tester and A. C. Scott
Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences
Vol. 353, No. 1365, Vegetation-Climate-Atmosphere Interactions: Past, Present, and Future (Jan. 29, 1998), pp. 131-140
Published by: Royal Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/56581
Page Count: 7
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The Influence of Carboniferous Palaeoatmospheres on Plant Function: An Experimental and Modelling Assessment [and Discussion]
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Abstract

Geochemical models of atmospheric evolution predict that during the late Carboniferous, ca. 300 Ma, atmospheric O2 and CO2 concentrations were 35% and 0.03%, respectively. Both gases compete with each other for ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase-the primary C-fixing enzyme in C3 land plants-and the absolute concentrations and the ratio of the two in the atmosphere have the potential to strongly influence land-plant function. The Carboniferous therefore represents an era of potentially strong feedback between atmospheric composition and plant function. We assessed some implications of this ratio of atmospheric gases on plant function using experimental and modelling approaches. After six weeks growth at 35% O2 and 0.03% CO2, no photosynthetic acclimation was observed in the woody species Betula pubescens and Hedera helix relative to those plants grown at 21% O2. Leaf photosynthetic rates were 29% lower in the high O2 environment compared to the controls. A global-scale analysis of the impact of the late Carboniferous climate and atmospheric composition on vegetation function was determined by driving a process-based vegetation-biogeochemistry model with a Carboniferous global palaeoclimate simulated by the Universities Global Atmospheric Modelling Programme General Circulation Model. Global patterns of net primary productivity, leaf area index and soil carbon concentration for the equilibrium model solutions showed generally low values everywhere, compared with the present day, except for a central band in the northern land mass extension of Gondwana, where high values were predicted. The areas of high soil carbon accumulation closely match the known distribution of late Carboniferous coals. Sensitivity analysis with the model indicated that the increase in O2 concentration from 21% to 35% reduced global net primary productivity by 18.7% or by 6.3 Gt C yr-1. Further work is required to collate and map at the global scale the distribution of vegetation types, and evidence for wildfires, for the late Carboniferous to test our predictions.

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