How plants changed Earth’s history

Fundamental science funded by NERC lies behind The Emerald Planet, a popular science book by Professor David Beerling, palaeoclimatologist at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. Piecing together the evolutionary puzzle of how plants shaped the earth’s history and were affected by changes in environment, the book inspired a BBC television programme and a new generation of earth systems scientists.

Studying plant fossils and simulating past climates can tell us about ancient environmental events and the impact they had on the planet’s ecosystem. This can help inform our understanding of climate change today. Through a PhD studentship, postdoc grants and other projects, NERC enabled the research behind three chapters of The Emerald Planet.

Ozone layer

Detailed atmospheric chemistry simulations investigated whether eruptions of a Siberian volcano 250 million years ago destroyed the ozone shield that protects life on earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Findings added weight to the hypothesis that these events did indeed lead to dramatic ozone damage and consequent mutation of plant spores, as supported by recent experimental studies.

Ancient global warming

From plant fossils present in Greenland rocks, evidence of global warming 200 million years ago informs predictions for the impact on climate of current increases in carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere. Warming of oceans and melting of gas-containing sea-floor ice is linked to past climate change with implications for future global change, although whether this will be gradual or dramatic is still unknown.

Polar forests

Research recreated the climate and light conditions of the ancient Antarctic in growth rooms to investigate how trees coped with the extreme seasonal light conditions. Results suggested that the plants were equally happy as either evergreen or deciduous, disproving the long-standing hypothesis that leaf habit was an adaptation to photo period.

Impact

Combining evidence from the fossil record with experiments and theoretical modelling, the research’s unique approach has impacted the emerging field of earth systems science. Findings have challenged some hypotheses and methods have contributed to fundamental scientific knowledge of the natural world. The book and the How To Grow A Planet series, presented by Professor Iain Stewart, have inspired potential scientists and increased public awareness, with over 15,000 books sold and the three TV episodes receiving an average of 1.7m viewers each.

On the reach of the book, Professor Beerling said: “The research has contributed to training the next generation of researchers in the UK and in the US. Some of the postdocs involved in the research behind the book now have tenured academic positions.” Effects also have been far-reaching: “Our work is influencing other research and helping build collaborations with colleagues in the UK and around the world.”

An understanding of how and why the environment has changed in the past means this knowledge can be applied to current climate change issues. In geoengineering, for instance, the recently developing models allow assessment of the effects of adding rocks to soil to promote CO2 drawdown, an important technique to combat current rises in greenhouse gases.

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