A new scientific synthesis is bringing together current physiological and genetic knowledge about how plants work in order to reinterpret the fossil record. These plant fossils, says Beerling, are “exquisite tachometers” of the earth’s early climate, and show that plants have always been “major actors in the environmental drama of global warming”.
In their 540-million-year history, plants have relentlessly orchestrated environmental change. Each year they synthesise 105 billion tonnes of biomass from carbon dioxide in the air. Forests are sponges, soaking up greenhouse gases.
But as the planet warms, their ability to do so is compromised. The next 50 years will be crucial, says Beerling, in what is an illuminating account of the ways “greenhouse gases, genes, and geochemistry” are linked.
The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth’s History
Oxford University Press, 2009
— By PD Smith