How Does Temperature Affect Plant Growth?
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Scientists have determined that the earth’s temperature has increased by 0.32° Fahrenheit every decade for the past 40 years. More recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded 2020 as the second-warmest year in a 141-year history.
Although it may not seem like a drastic change in weather, even the slightest fluctuation in temperature can negatively impact plant growth and vitality.
Research has proven that global warming affects plants throughout the years, from driving extreme heat or frigid temperatures, increasing weather-related events like droughts, wildfires, or torrential rains, and rendering more pest infestations.
Plants are essential for life on earth in the following ways:
- They convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen through photosynthesis.
- They provide habitats for animals in the wild.
- They’re a food source for all terrestrial beings, including humans.
- Humans need medicinal plants to treat a variety of ailments and diseases.
Without plants, organisms would be unable to survive. Unfortunately, a warming planet threatens plant life. To better understand how temperature affects plant growth, it’s necessary to learn about society’s role in the greenhouse effect.
What is the Greenhouse Effect?
When we think about how global warming affects plant growth, the greenhouse effect is ultimately the culprit. However, human activity is the real driving force behind the greenhouse effect.
As humans emit pollutants into the atmosphere, an excess of “greenhouse gases” becomes heat-trapped by the sun’s rays relative to the earth’s surface. In a way, greenhouse gases serve as a blanket enveloping the planet.
Greenhouse gases consist of CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases, and water vapor. Naturally-occurring greenhouse gases are meant to maintain a balance of hot and cold temperatures for a healthy, functioning planet. However, fossil fuels and other carbon-inducing emitters have interfered with that balance, causing temperatures to rise significantly.
While plants can adapt to changes in the atmosphere on their own, higher concentrations of greenhouse gases cause them to overcompensate as they aim to stabilize energy levels.
As a result of the greenhouse effect, climate change has led to unusually powerful weather patterns that can alter vegetation growth.
CO2: Changes in Plant Growth
Ultimately, plants require CO2 for healthy growth, but too much exposure could be detrimental. When plants take in too much CO2, it may hinder their ability to produce buds during regular flowering cycles and convert CO2 to oxygen in a process called photorespiration.
Plants are more sensitive to extreme temperatures than any other organism. Unfortunately, unlike animals and humans, they have nowhere to migrate when it gets hotter. To cool off, CO2 allows plants to grow taller and make their leaves narrower and further apart instead. Even though this may seem like an excellent way for plants to combat the heat naturally, their taller stalks ultimately curve and snap from the increased height.
Another way excess CO2 can affect plant growth is by promoting an abundance of poison ivy and allergen-producing vegetation. In one North Carolina study conducted over six years, scientists found that higher CO2 enabled photosynthesis and caused poison ivy to flourish. It also created more urushiol—the compound that causes itchy allergic reactions—leading researchers to believe future skin reactions will be far worse than they currently are.
According to the American Skin Association, 85% of the population is allergic to poison ivy and other poisonous vegetation. In America, poison ivy is the leading allergic reaction and affects 10 to 50 million Americans every year. A future where poison ivy is more prevalent could pose a severe health risk for many people.
Temperatures on opposite ends of the spectrum can affect plant growth. Obviously, plants are complex organisms and can adapt to weather changes accordingly. However, they may undergo significant heat or cold stress depending on the time of year.
For example, we’ve often seen instances of heat stress play out in the agriculture sector. Heat stress is usually defined as increasing temperature for a prolonged period that can cause irreversible harm to plant growth and development. Many people may be familiar with common environmental heat stress conditions, such as droughts or heat waves.
Hotter temperatures on crop yields could be highly consequential for future food security. Considering how the global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, sustainable crop production suddenly becomes one of the most critical components of preventing food shortages to feed the hungry.
On the other hand, frigid temperatures can also decrease plant growth. Every winter, plants in colder climates undergo a hardening process, in which they prepare themselves for harsh, fluctuating outdoor conditions. During hardening, plants can gradually acclimate to the change in seasons and regrow healthily when the weather warms up again.
However, a cold snap can be just as damaging as a heatwave. When the temperatures drastically dip, a plant’s metabolism and maturation are impacted, often causing them to die off.
Many plants may also experience freeze injury, which occurs when the temperatures dip to 32° F or below freezing, leading to altered and punctured cell membranes. A plant’s cell structure is responsible for its chlorophyll content, photosynthesis, water movement, and overall functioning. Additionally, a cold snap may obstruct plant growth and their ability to produce seed stalks after enduring several cold or freezing days.
What You Can Do
Helping plants survive extreme climatic conditions may seem unfeasible. After all, what sort of control do you have over the weather? Likewise, you may wonder how one person could be capable of creating such an enormous impact on the environment.
Since human activity is the root of increased greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, it’s essential to begin saving plants by reducing the number of fossil fuels we release into the atmosphere.
Perhaps start by finding ways to reduce your carbon footprint in your own home. Some ideas may include simple acts like turning off the lights, using less water, unplugging electronics, using less plastic, taking the stairs, switching to energy-efficient appliances, and recycling. Even the most minor changes can make a significant difference over time.
On a much larger scale, the call for widespread climate mitigation measures is required by corporations and governments. This could include renewable energy resources, carbon offsets, encouraging more plant-based eating, emissions-free transportation, or low-emissions manufacturing.
You’re more powerful than you might believe with regard to climate mitigation. At the grassroots level, there are several ways you can raise awareness about climate change and evoke a serious conversation about the importance of plant health for the earth.
Healthy Plant Life Demands Balanced Temperatures
Certain plants are acclimated to a particular climate, allowing them to withstand prolonged heat or cold temperatures. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) even maintains a Plant Hardiness Zone Map to help gardeners and agriculturalists determine the right plants for their specific region.
Many native plants can survive varying temperature fluctuations and thrive in their environments. However, as the greenhouse effect and climate change impacts grow increasingly challenging, plants may struggle to adapt and endure those changes for extended periods.
Since plants are vital for all biodiversity to survive, this is one phenomenon humans should best not overlook. By doing your part to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emissions released into the atmosphere, you can promote more significant plant growth and vitality.
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About the author
Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.