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Carbon Cycle Shifts as Corn 'Explodes'

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering  page, Millions Against Monsanto page and our Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

"It's a remarkable story of what we've done in agriculture in general," says Mark Friedl. "And in particular corn, which is one crop that's just exploded." (Credit: Leo Papandreou/Flickr)

As plants inhale in the summer, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide drop in the Northern Hemisphere. As plant exhale and decompose after the growing season, those levels climb up again.

Over the past 50 years, the size of this seasonal swing has increased by as much as half, for reasons that aren't fully understood. Now a team of researchers shows that agricultural production may generate up to a quarter of the increase in this seasonal carbon cycle, with corn playing a leading role.

"In the Northern Hemisphere, there is a strong seasonal cycle of vegetation," says Mark Friedl, professor in Boston University's department of Earth and environment and senior author of a paper about the research in Nature.

"Something is changing about this cycle; the ecosystems are becoming more productive, pulling in more atmospheric carbon during the summer and releasing more during the dormant period."

Most of this annual change is attributed to the effects of higher temperatures driven by climate change-including longer growing seasons, quicker uptake of carbon by vegetation, and the "greening" of higher latitudes with more vegetation.

"But that's not the whole story," says Josh Gray, a research assistant professor and lead author of the paper. "We've put humans and croplands into the story."                       

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