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Loyola researcher: There's some good news about ozone depletion, at least for plants

Loyola press release - November 12, 2014

There’s been a lot of bad news about ozone depletion, but a Loyola University New Orleans professor helped uncover surprising good news about ozone depletion and the effects of ultraviolet rays on plants and ecosystems. Loyola researcher Paul Barnes, Ph.D., said recent findings indicate that ultraviolet rays reaching plants can actually help them repel pests and other dangers like herbivores. Those details will be released in January in a United Nations report on the effects of ozone depletion and climate change.

Barnes is part of an elite team of scientists from around the world that together make up the United Nations Environment Programme’s Environmental Effects Assessment Panel, which investigates the latest effects of stratospheric ozone depletion. The team’s research culminates in a report published once every four years.

For the United Nations research, Barnes focuses on what happens to plants and ecosystems under the diminished ozone layer. His expertise helped uncover the new finding that changes in ultraviolet light because of ozone depletion and climate change can at times have positive effects on plants in the ecosystem.

When a plant is exposed to UV rays, they produce certain chemicals that act as sunscreen to protect the leaves and other parts of the plant against the UV rays. Those same chemicals also protect the plants against pests and pathogens that could ultimately destroy them—and even destroy entire crops. More UV rays coming from the atmosphere basically translates to the production of more of these protective properties in plants, or plants making more of their own natural “sunscreen.” That could translate to plants that are more disease and pest-resistant, which could translate to better crops for farmers.

“But it’s sort of a double-sided coin,” Barnes said.

Ozone depletion and the resulting increased UV could also affect things like how fast dead plant material decomposes—ultimately affecting the availability of vital nutrients for plants and soil.

Another twist in the upcoming United Nations report documents for the first time the fact that ozone depletion in the southern hemisphere changes weather patterns, for example, causing some geographic locations to become wetter and some to become dryer. While climate change was once only blamed on the effects of greenhouse gases, now scientists say the hole in the ozone layer plays a large role, too.

Another new finding of the report pays tribute to the benefits of the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty regulating ozone-depleting chemicals. The protocol has curtailed significant ozone loss and prevented large-scale losses in crop yield, according to the upcoming report.

At the end of the day, Barnes’s research experience on the United Nations team has not only contributed to research that benefits the world, it is also reinforcing the importance of a liberal arts education and interdisciplinary approaches to undergraduate education.

“In the sciences nowadays, it’s become so specialized that it is very difficult for scientists to talk to other groups and other specialties,” Barnes said. “A liberal arts education gives you the breadth to reach out and understand other people’s work and the ability to work with others outside of your specific field.”

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