Global Photosynthesis on the Rise

Plant photosynthesis was stable for hundreds of years before the industrial revolution, but then grew rapidly in the 20th century.

The Science

The team of researchers discovered the record of global photosynthesis by analyzing Antarctic snow data captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Gases trapped in different layers of Antarctic snow allow scientists to study global atmospheres of the past. This study focused on a gas stored in the ice that provides a record of the Earth’s plant growth.

The Impact

Virtually all life on this planet depends on photosynthesis. The study found that the observation-based carbonyl sulfide (COS) record is most consistent with simulations of climate and the carbon cycle that assume large gross primary productivity (GPP) growth during the 20th century (31% increase).


The scientists analyzed the COS gas. It is a cousin of carbon dioxide (CO2). Plants remove COS from the air through a process that is related to the plant uptake of CO2. While photosynthesis is closely related to the atmospheric COS level, other processes in oceans, ecosystems, and industry can change the COS level also.  To account for all of these processes, the interdisciplinary team of scientists developed an Earth system model of COS sources and sinks. Although this COS analysis does not directly constrain models of future GPP growth, it does provide a global-scale benchmark for historical carbon cycle simulations.

Principal Investigator(s)

Elliott Campbell
University of California, Merced

Related Links


DOE / TES DE-SC0011999

The project is funded by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science (DOE/TES DE-SC0011999).


Campbell, J.E., et al. “Large historical growth in global terrestrial gross primary production.” Nature 54, 84–87 (2017). [DOI:10.1038/nature22030].