Warming soils may belch much more carbon


monitoring soil carbon emissions
Carbon emissions from soils could increase more than previously thought as temperatures go up, a new experiment suggests. Caitlin Hicks Pries (at the computer) and colleagues monitored emissions from a forest plot in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

DEEP DIRT

© 2010 The Regents of the University of California, through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

As the planet warms, carbon stashed in Earth’s soils could escape into the atmosphere far faster than previously thought. In the worst-case scenario for climate change, carbon dioxide emissions from soil-dwelling microbes could increase by 34 to 37 percent by 2100, researchers report online March 9 in Science. Previous studies predicted a more modest 9 to 12 percent rise if no efforts are taken to curb climate change. Those extra emissions could further intensify global warming.

Much of that extra CO2 will originate from soils at depths overlooked by previous measurements, says study coauthor Margaret Torn, a biogeochemist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “We ignore the deep at our peril,” she says.

Soils cover about two-thirds of Earth’s ice-free land area and store nearly 3 trillion metric tons of organic carbon — more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Dead organisms such as plants contribute to this carbon stockpile, and carbon-munching microbes belch some of that carbon into the atmosphere as CO2. Rising temperatures will spur the microbes to speed up their plant consumption, scientists warn, releasing more CO2 into…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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