Earth shaped by plants

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Vegetation has been a key part of the Earth's surface for only about 450 million years. With the progression of the terrestrial landscape from bare surfaces to widespread coverage by plants - ground vegetation initially, then trees and finally flowering plants - the Earth's surface and its biogeochemical processes have also changed. In this issue, we present a collection of articles that explore how the evolution of terrestrial plants and the Earth's surface have affected each other.



One and only Earth p81


Reports from the Kepler mission have raised hopes for finding an Earth-like planet. Nevertheless, our Earth is probably unique — not just because of its distance from the Sun, but also because it has co-evolved with the life forms it has hosted.


News and Views

Fluvial Geomorphology: Wood and river landscapes pp93-94

Angela Gurnell


The influence of trees and dead wood on river dynamics has long been overlooked. Recent work suggests that large wood pieces can stabilize the land surface, contributing to a large-wood cycle that profoundly affects floodplain morphology and ecology.

Ecology: Plants on the edge pp93

Alicia Newton



Books and Arts

Invasion of the metaphors pp90

Gregory J. Retallack reviews The Terrestrialization Process: Modelling Complex Interactions at the Biosphere-Geosphere Interface by Marco Vecoli, Gaël Clément & Brigitte Meyer-Berthaud


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First plants cooled the Ordovician pp86-89

Timothy M. Lenton, Michael Crouch, Martin Johnson, Nuno Pires & Liam Dolan


The Late Ordovician period, ending 444 million years ago, was marked by the onset of glaciations. The expansion of non-vascular land plants accelerated chemical weathering and may have drawn down enough atmospheric carbon dioxide to trigger the growth of ice sheets.



Palaeozoic landscapes shaped by plant evolution p99-105

Martin R. Gibling & Neil S. Davies


Throughout the Palaeozoic era, about 540 to 250 million years ago, plants colonized land and rapidly diversified. An analysis of the palaeontologic record shows that this diversification irrevocably altered the shape and form of fluvial systems.


From the archives


News and Views

Palaeoclimate: A fiery start to the Jurassic

Bas van de Schootbrugge


The Triassic/Jurassic boundary was marked by widespread environmental changes, including greenhouse warming. Palaeoecological reconstructions from East Greenland reveal a dramatic rise in fire activity, driven by vegetation shifts and climate change.

Geomorphology: Co-evolution of rivers and plants

Chris Paola


River systems have changed through time; the sinuous, stable channels common today developed relatively late in Earth's history. The rock record suggests that a specific type of fixed-channel river system arose after the expansion of arborescence.



Terrestrial biogeochemical feedbacks in the climate system

A. Arneth, S. P. Harrison, S. Zaehle, K. Tsigaridis, S. Menon, P. J. Bartlein, J. Feichter, A. Korhola, M. Kulmala, D. O'Donnell, G. Schurgers, S. Sorvari & T. Vesala


The terrestrial biosphere is a key regulator of atmospheric chemistry and climate. Total positive radiative forcing resulting from biogeochemical feedbacks between the terrestrial biosphere and atmosphere could be equally as important as that resulting from physical feedbacks.



Significant effect of sediment cohesion on delta morphology

Douglas A. Edmonds & Rudy L. Slingerland


Delta morphology is thought to be controlled by factors such as river discharge, tides and waves. Numerical modelling shows that sediment cohesion also strongly influences the development of a delta's characteristics.

Increased fire activity at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary in Greenland due to climate-driven floral change

Claire M. Belcher, Luke Mander, Guillermo Rein, Freddy X. Jervis, Matthew Haworth, Stephen P. Hesselbo, Ian J. Glasspool & Jennifer C. McElwain


An episode of climate warming 200 Myr ago was associated with catastrophic environmental changes. Experimental and palaeontological data suggest that a climate-driven shift to more flammable leaf shapes contributed to increased fire activity in East Greenland at this time.

Ground-level ozone influenced by circadian control of isoprene emissions

C. N. Hewitt, K. Ashworth, A. Boynard, A. Guenther, B. Langford, A. R. MacKenzie, P. K. Misztal, E. Nemitz, S. M. Owen, M. Possell, T. A. M. Pugh, A. C. Ryan & O. Wild


The volatile organic compound isoprene — a precursor to the air pollutant ozone — is produced by many plant species. Canopy-scale measurements in Malaysia, combined with model simulations, suggest that isoprene emissions are under circadian control.



Influence of high-latitude vegetation feedbacks on late Palaeozoic glacial cycles

Daniel E. Horton, Christopher J. Poulsen & David Pollard


Ice ages during the Palaeozoic era are marked by glacial–interglacial cycles thought to be driven by variations in the Earth's orbit. Numerical simulations suggest that the response of vegetation to the varying insolation may be an important factor in the associated climate response.

Evolution of fixed-channel alluvial plains in response to Carboniferous vegetation

Neil S. Davies & Martin R. Gibling


The expansion of land plants led to the development of new river and floodplain morphologies. Field studies suggest that the expansion of tree habitats in the Carboniferous period caused the development of river systems dominated by multiple channels and stable alluvial islands.

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