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Impacts of Atmospheric CO2 Enrichment on Hydrology

Vitor Vieira Vasconcelos

PhD in Natural Science
Associate Professor Federal University of ABC (UFABC)
November 2017


Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have released atmospheric CO2
to unprecedented levels (IPCC, 2013). Atmospheric CO2 enrichment has
increased global warming, but also controls physiological processes in plant
evapotranspiration (Cramer et al., 2001). This report investigates how changes
in vegetation physiological processes driven by CO2 enrichment may affect
hydrological processes.

Factual Information

The effect of CO2 on plants can be divided in physiological and structural

response subsystems (Betts et al., 1997). Regarding the physiological response,
plants open their stomata just wide enough to absorb the amount of CO2
demanded for photosynthesis, in order to increase Water Use Efficiency (WUE).
If atmospheric CO2 concentration increases, plants get all the needed CO2 with
narrower stomatal aperture, decreasing water loss from evapotranspiration. With
less evapotranspiration, plants would need to get less water from the soil, and
this unused water would flow as runoff. Therefore, the physiological response
to higher atmospheric CO2 would increase rivers runoff.

From the structural perspective, higher atmospheric CO2 concentration would

increase Net Primary Productivity (NPP), thus plants would produce thicker
canopies and more developed roots. This extra biomass would pump more water
from the soil in order to meet the additional photosynthesis demand, causing
more evapotranspiration. The higher biomass would also add more leaf-litter to
the soil, which would be able to hold more water (Williamson et al., 2006).
Resuming the effect of the structural response, with more evapotranspiration and
more water hold in the soil, there would be less runoff.

Consequently, the physiological and structural responses would lead to opposite

effects. One way to investigate which aspect would have stronger effect would
be analysing the change in run-off of watersheds through the last century, in order
to check if runoff is really increasing or decreasing while atmospheric CO2
concentration has been increasing.

Gedney et al. (2006) conducted such experiment and, after controlling several
other variables (such as precipitation and land use change), concluded that the
increase in atmospheric CO2 is probably leading to an increase in rivers runoff.
Incorporating these relationships in a hydrological model forced with doubled CO2
concentration increased the estimated runoff, in average, in 6% worldwide,
comparing to pre-industrial levels (Betts et al., 2007).


This report showed that increasing atmospheric CO2 may lead to antagonist
processes regarding runoff. However, through hydrological modelling of
watersheds, it was possible to infer that the physiological response, which
increases runoff, exerts stronger effect than the structural response. However,
there are uncertainties in this model, partly because it was not possible to assure
if the balance between physiological and structural responses will be the same at
atmospheric CO2 concentrations higher than the past ones, which were used to
calibrate the model. In this context, a future improvement in this hydrological
model could simulate the effect of both processes, i.e., not only the resulting
signal of their interaction. In this way, the modelling strategy would shift from an
empirical modelling to a more theoretical approach.


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Gedney, N., Cox, P.M., Betts, R.A. et al. (2008) Detection of a direct carbon
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IPCC (2013) Summary for Policymakers in Climate Change 2013: The Physical
Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report
of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Online]. Available at
(Accessed 6 April 2017).

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