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Could “hairier” crops help mitigate climate warming?

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

In an interesting new article in Climatic Change, Christopher Doughty and colleagues at Stanford consider whether raising crop albedo (reflectivity) could decrease solar  absorption at the Earth’s surface and cool regional climates.  One might consider this a kind of climate “bio”engineering.

How could you do this, and would it work?

Many desert plants have hair-like projections that reflect excess energy and keep the leaves cool.  As the authors suggest, perhaps crops could be developed/switched such that agricultural landscapes become more reflective:

Agricultural scientists have modified crop morphology with concomitant
increases in albedo. Leaf pubescence in soybeans was increased fourfold over normal varieties to increase crop water use efficiency, thereby increasing surface albedo by ∼0.01. Switching from a potential biofuel crop such as corn (albedo: 0.20–0.23) or soybean (albedo: 0.21) to a higher albedo potential biofuel crop, such as sunflower (albedo: 0.24–0.30) can increase surface albedo by ∼0.06.

Using a computer to simulate how climate is affected by changing plant albedo, here’s what they found:

Simulations indicate that planting brighter crops can decrease summertime maximum daily 2 m air temperature by 0.25◦C per 0.01 increase in surface albedo at high latitudes (>30◦).

Based on the numbers shown above, a 6% rise in albedo would be enough to cool regional climate by 1.5◦C.

However, there are a few challenges:

(1) It turns out that when you plant high albedo crops a low latitudes close to the equator, the increased reflectivity means that plants don’t absorb as much sunlight, they don’t heat up as much, and they don’t lose as much water to the atmosphere via their leaves. In the computer model, this leads to less cloud cover and more sunlight reaching the soil surface, which heats air temperatures and counteracts any cooling effect of the more reflective leaves.

(2) When they looked at different varieties of soybeans, they could only muster a 1.6% increase in albedo based on differences in existing types, meaning that there’s only about a 0.4◦C cooling possible by changing from a less-hairy to a more-hairy soybean crop.

Bottom line:  Although substantial regional cooling could be achieved at high latitudes from switching crop types, the authors argue that it’s unlikely that we will be able to significantly offset future warming with the kinds of crop albedo changes currently available.

Doughty, C., Field, C., & McMillan, A. (2010). Can crop albedo be increased through the modification of leaf trichomes, and could this cool regional climate? Climatic Change DOI: 10.1007/s10584-010-9936-0


Photo credit: autan

One Response to “Could “hairier” crops help mitigate climate warming?”

  1. [...] Could “hairier” crops help mitigate climate warming? Humankind plays such a large role in our planet’s ecosystem that it is easy to forget that unusual and offbeat changes can affect the climate in significant ways.  Phil Camill at Global Change describes one of these odd possibilities — changing the reflectivity of the planet’s surface by using “hairier” crops — and the pros and cons of such an approach. [...]


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