John F. Kennedy Space Center
Kennedy Space Center, Florida 32899

July 14, 2000


A life sciences study at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. is showing that rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere, partially caused by the burning of fossil fuels, could spur plant growth globally as it has to local scrub oaks at KSC.

Higher levels of CO2 also could change the survival odds of certain plants, insects and animals, and thus the balance of those species in various ecosystems across the world.

While the changes might not be so dramatic as to create a primitive-forest type environment within the next millennium, the environmental effects could be significant.

The CO2 study is a collaborative research project of NASA and the Smithsonian Institution with support from the Department of Energy and participation from a variety of other government agencies and universities.

"Levels of carbon dioxide continue to rise in our environment, so it's important for us to understand the effects," said Dr. Bert Drake, the Smithsonian's principal investigator on the project. "We still have a lot to learn, but now at least we have a rich data set."

Researchers have learned through the study that although scrub oaks grow faster in a CO2-rich environment, their leaves are less nutrient rich. That means insects that feed upon the leaves spend more time feeding, have more exposure to predators and thus higher death rates. Also, certain scrub oak species do better than others in the enriched CO2 environment.

"All the small changes created by CO2 add up and could cause major changes it's impossible to imagine," Drake said. "By studying the reaction of a natural ecosystem to high CO2 levels we will have a better idea of what we may be facing in years to come."

Scientists and students continue to collect data from the CO2 test site, which is about a half mile north of KSC's Vehicle Assemble Building (VAB). The site is a natural scrub oak area where 12-foot diameter areas of scrub oak have been enclosed in 16 open-top test chambers. CO2 is blown into the test chambers to study its effect on the growth of scrub oak and the insects and other creatures that feed on and around the scrub oak.

Five scientists from NASA and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md., work at the site to monitor experiments and keep the site running. In addition, about 15 scientists and students from the University of Northern Arizona, Old Dominion University, The University of Illinois in Champaign, and the Desert Research Institute participate in studies at the site.

The scientists hope to continue the study another five to 10 years to determine long-term effects of high levels of CO2 on a natural ecosystem.


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