When I hear concerns about soil erosion, I always think about my grandma. She was an amazing woman. She grew up in Huron, South Dakota in the heart of the Great Depression, which just happened to coincide with the Dust Bowl. Growing up, my sister and I listened to her stories of dealing with the dust storms, stuffing rags in the window sills and the cracks around the doors in an attempt to keep the dust out of the house. Despite her best efforts, a fine film of dust would still cover the interior of the house.
The dust from the Dust Bowl claimed crops, cattle, and the lives of two children in Huron. To this day, when contractors cut into houses that survived the Dust Bowl, they find sand in between the interior and exterior walls. The Dust Bowl eroded more than the soil; it eroded a way of life.
Erosion is a problem that persists to this day, and it’s responsible for dust storms, mudslides, and sinkholes. Fortunately, plants in forests, grasslands, and everywhere else set roots in the soil and help the soil stay put, and plants around the globe are getting a boost from increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Although many people, spurred by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, think “going green” means using less carbon dioxide, plants prefer just the opposite. We all know plants need carbon dioxide to breathe, but many don’t know plants turn that carbon dioxide into carbon in the form of the roots, stems, trunks, branches, leaves, and fruit we are more familiar with. And according to a new study by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the greener the planet gets.
The report, Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts, published by The Heartland Institute (where I am a research fellow), cites thousands of peer-reviewed studies rising atmospheric CO2 levels are helping nearly all plants grow bigger, become more efficient in using water, and better withstand the stress of high air temperature. In a way, this CO2 enrichment of the atmosphere is to plants like an oxygen mask is to a winded football player—helping to prepare him for the next play.
More CO2 in the atmosphere also means plants start to grow in places they couldn’t before, reducing the amount of erosion and, consequently, dust in the air in places around the globe, while increasing the potential for agriculture and wildlife habitat as the range of certain plant species expands.
Increased levels of CO2 also have been found to increase the fine-root density in some plants by up to 184 percent, and a 55 percent increase in aboveground biomass despite water and nutrition limitations—meaning plants become better at anchoring the soil in place and allowing water to permeate the surface, which is especially important during droughts.
This would have been great news for my grandma and everyone else who survived the Dust Bowl. Improved farming techniques have played an important part in reducing the amount of erosion around the world, and these efforts will certainly be helped by having more CO2 in the atmosphere. Instead of being a detriment to plant growth, more CO2 acts as a fertilizer, making plants grow bigger, faster, more resilient, and more abundant, greening the world we live in.