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Research findings may influence climate change models

RELEASED: May 25, 2011

Editor's Note: A National Science Foundation news release about the research findings and downloadable photos that include Dr. Tali Lee and UW-Eau Claire students working at the research site can be found at:

Tali Lee
Dr. Tali Lee takes measurements of plant response to CO2 with student intern Ann Karpinski. (BioCON Experiment/NSF Cedar Creek LTER Site photo)

EAU CLAIRE — Scientific models used to predict future climate change could be modified because of findings from an extensive research project that involves a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire biologist and several of her students.

Dr. Tali Lee, associate professor of biology at UW-Eau Claire, and researchers from the University of Minnesota conducted an 11-year experiment with 13 plant species common in prairie ecosystems in U.S. Midwestern states.

"The study found that in this ecosystem the capacity for plants to absorb extra carbon from the atmosphere as carbon dioxide levels rise was less than expected," Lee said. "These results are important to consider, along with other studies, because models used to forecast future climate change include estimates of plants' absorption of CO2. Our study indicates that today's models may overestimate the ability of plants to absorb excess CO2, which means they may underestimate the pace of future CO2 increases and associated global change."

The findings are published in the current issue of the journal Global Change Biology. Lee is the lead author on the article.

Atmospheric CO2 levels would be increasing at an even faster rate if not for the fact that plants use CO2 in the process of photosynthesis to maintain and construct new growth, Lee said. In this study, researchers added extra CO2 to the environment of 13 plants species to determine how the plants would respond to the increased levels.

"Across 13 species representing a prairie ecosystem, plants showed just slight increases in photosynthesis when grown under elevated CO2 conditions," Lee said, noting that their findings were consistent across 11 years of study. "The magnitude of this increase was only 10 percent, compared to recent reviews of similar studies that report averages across various ecosystems of closer to 30 percent."

The findings that not all ecosystems respond the same to elevated levels of carbon dioxide will encourage scientists to be more cautious when using existing climate change models, Lee said.

Lee's research team's experiment is located at the University of Minnesota's Cedar Creek Long-Term Ecological Research site in Minnesota, where numerous perennial prairie species, native or naturalized to the Cedar Creek area, are planted.

The project, which is part of the BioCON experiment, is funded by the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology and the Department of Energy.

Lee and two students will continue to work on the project this summer. Molly Kreiser, a senior biochemistry/molecular biology major from Vadnais Heights, Minn., and Greg Nelson, an environmental public health and biology major from Oconomowoc, will serve as interns at the site this summer.

Kally Worm, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in biology, works at the project site as a field manager. As a student, she worked as an intern at the site for several summers.

For more information about the project or the research findings, contact Dr. Tali Lee at 715-836-5087 or



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