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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Carbon feedback from forest soils accelerates global warming

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October 5, 2017  Marine Biological Laboratory  read full ScienceDaily article here

After 26 years, the world’s longest-running experiment to discover how warming temperatures affect forest soils has revealed a surprising, cyclical response: Soil warming stimulates periods of abundant carbon release from the soil to the atmosphere alternating with periods of no detectable loss in soil carbon stores. The study indicates that in a warming world, a self-reinforcing and perhaps uncontrollable carbon feedback will occur between forest soils and the climate system, accelerating global warming.

….each year, mostly from fossil fuel burning, we are releasing about 10 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. That’s what’s causing the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global warming. The world’s soils contain about 3,500 billion metric tons of carbon. If a significant amount of that soil carbon is added to the atmosphere, due to microbial activity in warmer soils, that will accelerate the global warming process. And once this self-reinforcing feedback begins, there is no easy way to turn it off. There is no switch to flip.”…

….”if the microbes in all landscapes respond to warming in the same way as we’ve observed in mid-latitude forest soils, this self-reinforcing feedback phenomenon will go on for a while and we are not going to be able to turn those microbes off. Of special concern is the big pool of easily decomposed carbon that is frozen in Arctic soils. As those [Arctic] soils thaw out, this feedback phenomenon would be an important component of the climate system, with climate change feeding itself in a warming world….”

Heated and control plots in a long-term soil warming study at Harvard Forest, Petersham, Mass. Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Mass., and colleagues began the study in 1991.
Credit: Audrey Barker-Plotkin
…Melillo and colleagues began this pioneering experiment in 1991 in a deciduous forest stand at the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts. They buried electrical cables in a set of plots and heated the soil 5° C above the ambient temperature of control plots. Over the course of the 26-year experiment (which still continues), the warmed plots lost 17 percent of the carbon that had been stored in organic matter in the top 60 centimeters of soil….
J. M. Melillo, S. D. Frey, K. M. DeAngelis, W. J. Werner, M. J. Bernard, F. P. Bowles, G. Pold, M. A. Knorr, A. S. Grandy. Long-term pattern and magnitude of soil carbon feedback to the climate system in a warming world. Science, 2017; 358 (6359): 101 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan2874

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