Researchers at the University of Illinois in Champaign are planning for global warming by raising soybeans in the kind of atmospheric conditions forecast for the year 2050. By that time, carbon dioxide levels are expected to be about 1.5 times greater than the current 370 parts per million, while daytime ozone levels during the growing season could peak on average at 80 parts per billion (they are now 60 parts per billion).
One unknown effect of global warming is how well food crops will grow in a CO2-rich atmosphere. The conversion of sunlight through the green pigment chlorophyll in plants uses carbon dioxide and water and releases oxygen.
Portions of 40 acres of University of Illinois farmland this summer are sprouting soybeans grown in the presence of higher CO2 levels. Next summer, elevated levels of ozone will join the mix in this experiment, which is called SoyFACE (Free Air Gas Concentration Enrichment). Despite all the evidence of global warming that has been presented over the last few years, SoyFACE is the first test of crop growth in the presence of both increased carbon dioxide and ozone.
Soybeans are sensitive to ozone. In August 1999, for instance, ozone levels in central Illinois exceeded the crop threshold for damage on 28 days. Greenhouse experiments suggest a 50 percent loss in crop yield under constant 2050 levels. ?When you consider the importance of the Midwest in terms of global food security, it is important to do this research here,? says Stephen Long, professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois. ?Up to now, experiments related to global warming on many crops have been done in locations on the periphery of major food production areas.?
FACE research projects are also being conducted in other places across the United States and around the world. In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a sweetgum plantation is being grown in a CO2-rich environment, while in Rhinelander, Wisconsin an aspen forest is getting the CO2 treatment. Swiss scientists are testing grasslands and a bog in high CO2 concentrations, while in Brazil a tropical rain forest is being fed a CO2-rich diet.
The experimental crops have vertical plastic pipes surrounding them that deliver a precisely regulated flow of carbon dioxide at crop level, pumped from a 50-ton solar powered tank. The same crop is grown nearby without extra CO2 for comparison.
Studies earlier this year by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service found that cropland and grassland in the United States could potentially store enough carbon to offset up to 14 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted from vehicle tailpipes and industrial smokestacks in this country.
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