The beau­ti­ful early bloom has taken on a trou­bling edge

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ENVIRONMENT -

The hawthorn may have faded, weighed down now by great trusses of berries, but this year’s ex­u­ber­ance of wild­flow­ers sees no end. The hill­side shines with great swathes of yel­low flags, which cheer my way down the boreen. This of­fers, as so of­ten, a favourite stretch of bloom.

The speed limit sign at the cor­ner warns, ab­surdly, of 50km per hour – this on a road scarcely more than a trac­tor wide, with a Mo­hi­can ridge of grass. It ush­ers driv­ers down to the car park be­hind the strand, a halt­ing place now for the Wild Atlantic Way.

Out alone, too early for tourists, I can ar­rive on the high bank af­ter the hazel thicket, at a pri­vate gallery of wild­flow­ers, bloom­ing not only a week or two early but in unan­tic­i­pated propin­quity (now there’s a word). Af­ter the hon­ey­suckle comes cross-leaved heath and above dog vi­o­lets a long, su­perb pel­met of bur­net roses, as gen­er­ously flo­ral as any­thing in the Bur­ren. I stand for a while, mind­fully, and be­hold.

There was an in­no­cent time when one could just have thanked the sun, but that was be­fore the An­thro­pocene, the new era of the planet’s hu­man gov­er­nance. It sig­ni­fied, in Bill McKibben’s chill­ing coinage of some 30 years ago, “the end of nature”.

It has also tran­spired, how­ever, that the rise in man-made CO , the chief green2 house gas, is ac­tu­ally boost­ing the world’s biomass of vege­ta­tion. Green­ing of the Earth and its Driv­ers was a de­fin­i­tive study last year in the jour­nal Nature Cli­mate Change – by “32 sci­en­tists from 24 in­sti­tu­tions in eight coun­tries”, as it now seems es­sen­tial to stress.

Boosts pho­to­syn­the­sis

Us­ing Nasa’s satel­lite data, they judged that CO has been adding leaves to plants 2 and trees to be­tween one quar­ter and a half of Earth’s veg­e­tated lands, mostly in the planet’s tem­per­ate zones. The gas boosts the pho­to­syn­the­sis of leaves, and adds en­ergy to flow­er­ing.

Ex­per­i­ments with the blos­som­ing have been go­ing on for decades. Waterlilies, nas­tur­tiums, chrysan­the­mums, clover and bell pep­pers are some of the plants given more CO to breathe in. The re­sults have 2 av­er­aged out at one-fifth more flow­ers and al­most as many more seeds.

How much this should taint one’s plea­sure de­pends on one’s cast of thought. Cli­mate con­trar­i­ans have hailed the green­ing and bloom­ing as ex­cel­lent news, of Earth well able to mop up more CO in 2 its leaves, flow­ers, fruits and seeds – more food, in­deed, to feed any ex­tra hu­man bil­lions.

This may seem to ig­nore melt­ing glaciers, ris­ing sea level, an acid­i­fy­ing ocean, ex­treme droughts, storms, wild­fires and the threat of im­pos­si­bly swel­ter­ing cities. And the Nature study also warned “that plants ac­cli­ma­tise, or ad­just, to ris­ing car­bon-diox­ide con­cen­tra­tion and the fer­til­i­sa­tion ef­fect di­min­ishes over time”.

Back on our acre, the snowy cas­cades of hawthorn blos­som are matched in the shin­ing spire of a rowan and by the record shim­mer of white­beam. But our real won­der this sum­mer has been at the swelling green vol­ume of the gar­den’s sin­gle beech tree.

Sweep­ing the ground

Adding at least a me­tre to ev­ery twig, it has be­come a broad and bil­low­ing ter­raced dome of fo­liage. Even the slight weight of a shower can shape it to a great, green crino­line, al­most sweep­ing the ground with its leaves, so that I have to duck my way through, dodg­ing drips, to mea­sure the morn­ing’s rain in the gauge.

Even if growth in biomass sub­sides, there are ways of help­ing to bal­ance the rise of CO through the work­ings of the 2 nat­u­ral world.

Min­ing our peat­lands has al­ready re­leased huge vol­umes of CO , locked up 2 over past cen­turies as soil or­ganic car­bon.

‘‘ There was an in­no­cent time when one could just thank the sun, but that was be­fore the An­thro­pocene, the new era of the planet’s hu­man gov­er­nance

But mil­lions of tons still re­main and need to be kept in­tact. A team study for the En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Agency, the Bog­land Re­port, said stop­ping turf-cut­ting for do­mes­tic use alone might save some 500,000 tons of car­bon a year.

Rewet­ting cut­away peat­land to re­new its growth and car­bon stor­age has since been on trial, block­ing drains and plant­ing mosses and bog cot­ton, on Bord na Móna bog at Bel­la­corick in north Mayo. Suck­ing up CO like this does work, at least on the 2 moist and cool west coast. Else­where, alas, big ar­eas of bog could dis­ap­pear with cli­mate change.

An­other store of car­bon is in the top 15cm of roots, hu­mus and mi­crobes in the soil un­der grass­land. But how much it can hold be­fore los­ing car­bon to the air again varies from place to place and one farm­ing regime to an­other.

Ir­ish grass­land soils could prom­ise huge po­ten­tial. But how much room is ac­tu­ally left for ex­tra car­bon – the de­gree of the soil’s “sat­u­ra­tion” – is still un­mea­sured. So, un­like the car­bon up­take of forests, it can’t yet be counted into Ire­land’s green­house gas bud­get.

Royal Ir­ish Academy ex­perts have urged “a na­tional ef­fort of soil car­bon mon­i­tor­ing”. This now leads the in­tense re­search by Tea­gasc into car­bon-friendly ways of farm­ing.

Yel­low irises. IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY MICHAEL VINEY

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