What do mountains have to do with climate change? More than you'd expect: new research shows that the weathering rates of mountains caused by vegetation growth plays a major role in controlling global temperatures. Scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of Sheffield have shown how tree roots in certain mountains "acted like a thermostat" for the global climate.
In warmer climates, tree roots grow faster and deeper (aided by the decomposition of leaf litter), breaking up rock that combines with carbon dioxide. This weathering process removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, lowering the global temperature and decreasing the growth rate of vegetation.
"This does seem to be a self-regulating process," lead author Christopher Doughty told mongabay.com. "However, it is important to note that plants did not evolve to regulate climate in this way. It is likely a fortuitous coincidence or maybe life would have gone extinct without this process long ago and we wouldn't be here to talk about it."
The research helps resolve the enigma of how the climate remained stable enough to support life despite repeated global climatic events.
"It has always been a mystery why climate has remained stable for life despite several large changes in temperature that could have negatively impacted life," Doughty said. "There are several mechanisms where life basically stabilized climate for life - we think that this is one of those mechanisms. It is important because it helps us to better understand how life has maintained itself on this planet for so long."
Unfortunately, the authors don't think these mountain thermostats will help prevent human-caused climate change.
"This is an important process to stabilize global climate, but also very slow," Doughty explained. "It requires thousands to millions of years to stabilize climate. This is too slow a process to have any noticeable effect on the CO2 people are adding to the atmosphere by burning of fossil fuels. Over millions of years, the increased CO2 will accelerate weathering, but this will not help humans deal with anthropogenic climate change."
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Mountain image via Shutterstock.