Recent research has shown that plants help themselves grow by releasing volatile organic compounds. These chemicals form a mist of aerosols above the vegetation that blocks some of the direct light but enhances diffuse light. This boosts the solar radiation reaching the forest understory and increases growth.
Alexandru Rap from the University of Leeds, UK, and colleagues assessed the impact of plant volatiles on primary productivity by using atmospheric and vegetation models along with measurements of aerosols and plant productivity. Their findings, published in Nature Geoscience, show that globally plant volatiles boost vegetation productivity by around 1.23 Pg of carbon per year — equivalent to around 10% of the world’s fossil fuel carbon emissions.
“Amazingly we found that by emitting volatile gases, forests are altering the Earth’s atmosphere in a way which benefits the forests themselves,” says Rap. “While emitting volatile gases costs a great deal of energy, we found that the forests get back more than twice as much benefit through the effect the increased diffuse light has on their photosynthesis.”