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Floods may be nearly as important as droughts for future carbon accounting

A flooded forrest.
(Photo credit: Matthew / Unsplash)
Jun 30 2021
Faculty, Fellow, Research, Stanford

Plants play an essential role in curbing climate change, absorbing about one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted from human activities and storing it in soil so it doesn’t become a heat-trapping gas. Extreme weather affects this ecosystem service, but when it comes to understanding carbon uptake, floods are studied far less than droughts – and they may be just as important, according to new research.

In a global analysis of vegetation over more than three decades, Stanford University researchers found that photosynthesis – the process by which plants take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – was primarily influenced by floods and heavy rainfall nearly as often as droughts in many locations. The paper, published in Environmental Research Letters on June 29, highlights the importance of incorporating plant responses to heavy rainfall in modeling vegetation dynamics and soil carbon storage in a warming world.

“These wet extremes have basically been ignored in this field and we're showing that researchers need to rethink it when designing schemes for future carbon accounting,” said senior study author Alexandra Konings, an assistant professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “Specific regions might be much more important for flood impacts than previously thought.”

Lead author, Caroline Famiglietti, is a 2018 SGF Fellow and 2021 ARCS Fellow.

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