Grazing lands occupy nearly half the Earth’s land area, provide livelihoods for millions, and mitigate climate change via massive stores of carbon. Maintaining and restoring soil health is essential to ensuring these benefits in our ever changing environment.
Thus, there is substantial global interest in managing livestock grazing to improve soil health. Grazing is promoted by some as a panacea for sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change. In other cases, grazing is depicted as an ultimate driver of soil degradation….
…Our findings (Byrnes et al. 2018) suggest that rotational grazing can improve soil health over continuous grazing strategies. Decisions about grazing strategy and intensity significantly influence soil health outcomes, and site-specific conditions play important roles in shaping these outcomes.
Byrnes, R.C., D.J. Eastburn, K.W. Tate, and L.M. Roche*. 2018. A global meta-analysis of grazing impacts on soil health indicators. J. Environmental Quality. doi:10.2134/jeq2017.08.0313.
This study highlights the key role of vegetation in controlling future terrestrial hydrologic response.
Carbon and water cycles are intimately coupled over land and must be studied as an interconnected system.
Hydrologists should collaborate with ecologists and climate scientists to better predict future water resources.
“Plants are at the center of the water, energy, and carbon cycles. As they take up carbon from the atmosphere to thrive, they release water that they take from the soils. Doing that, they also cool off the surface, controlling the temperature that we all feel. Now we know that mainly plants- not simply precipitation or temperature-will tell us whether we will live a drier or wetter world.”
Researchers have found that vegetation plays a dominant role in Earth’s water cycle, that plants will regulate and dominate the increasing stress placed on continental water resources in the future…
…”The biosphere physiological effects and related biosphere-atmosphere interactions are key to predicting future continental water stress as represented by evapotranspiration, long-term runoff, soil moisture, or leaf area index,” Gentine says. “In turn, vegetation water stress largely regulates land carbon uptake, further emphasizing how tightly the future carbon and water cycles are coupled so that they cannot be evaluated in isolation.”
….Gentine and Lemordant plan to further untangle the various physiological effects. “The vegetation response is itself indeed complex,” Gentine says, “and we want to decompose the impact of biomass growth vs. stomatal response. There are also implications for extreme heatwave events we are currently working on.”
“This work highlights an important need to further study how plants will respond to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide,” says James Randerson, professor of earth system science, University of California, Irvine, who was not involved with the study. “Plants can have a big effect on the climate of land, and we need to better understand the ways that they will respond to carbon dioxide, warming, and other forms of global change.”
Léo Lemordant et al. Critical impact of vegetation physiology on the continental hydrologic cycle in response to increasing CO2. PNAS, 2018 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1720712115
Seagrass meadows are CO2 sinks, known as ‘Blue Carbon ecosystems’. They take up and store carbon dioxide in their soils and biomass through biosequestration.
we need to advance our understanding of how seagrass ecosystems, especially those living close to their thermal tolerance, will respond to global change threats, both direct and through interactive effects with local pressures.
In the summer of 2010-2011 Western Australia experienced an unprecedented marine heat wave that elevated water temperatures 2-4°C above average for more than 2 months. The heat wave resulted in defoliation of the dominant Amphibolis antarctica seagrass species across the iconic Shark Bay World Heritage Site…
….Over the three years following the event, the loss of seagrass released up to nine million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. This amount is roughly the equivalent to the annual CO2 output of 800,000 homes, two average coal-fired power plants, or 1,600,000 cars driven for 12 months. It also potentially raised Australia’s annual estimate of national land-use change CO2 emissions by up to 21%….
…”This is significant, as seagrass meadows are CO2 sinks, known as ‘Blue Carbon ecosystems’. They take up and store carbon dioxide in their soils and biomass through biosequestration. The carbon that is locked in the soils is potentially there for millennia if seagrass ecosystems remain intact,” explains Professor Pere Masqué, co-author of the study and researcher at ICTA-UAB and the UAB Department of Physics….
…”We need to advance our understanding of how seagrass ecosystems, especially those living close to their thermal tolerance, will respond to global change threats, both direct and through interactive effects with local pressures….
A. Arias-Ortiz, O. Serrano, P. Masqué, P. S. Lavery, U. Mueller, G. A. Kendrick, M. Rozaimi, A. Esteban, J. W. Fourqurean, N. Marbà, M. A. Mateo, K. Murray, M. J. Rule & C. M. Duarte. A marine heatwave drives massive losses from the world’s largest seagrass carbon stocks. Nature Climate Change, 2018 DOI: 10.1038/s41558-018-0096-y
Findings may help scientists understand how much carbon dioxide can be released while still limiting global warming
while the amount of carbon dioxide in the open ocean is increasing at the same rate as in the atmosphere, these same carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing slower in the coastal ocean because the coastal ocean is shallower than the open ocean and can quickly transfer sequestered carbon dioxide to the deep ocean…
nutrient pollution entering coastal waters from things like fertilizer on land stimulate the growth of algae within the continental shelves, which subsequently removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
the continental shelves are becoming a crucial element in the global carbon cycle and for the climate system; scientists should take into account the contribution of continental shelves to calculate global carbon budgets
Oceanographers reveal that the water over the continental shelves is shouldering a larger than expected portion of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The findings may have important implications for scientists focused on understanding how much carbon dioxide can be released into the atmosphere while still keeping warming limited.
As more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, the global ocean soaks up much of the excess, storing roughly 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions coming from human activities.
In this sense, the ocean has acted as a buffer to slow down the greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere and, thus, global warming. However, this process also increases the acidity of seawater and can affect the health of marine organisms and the ocean ecosystem.
New research by University of Delaware oceanographer Wei-Jun Cai and colleagues at Université Libre de Bruxelles, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, University of Hawaii at Manoa and ETH Zurich, now reveals that the water over the continental shelves is shouldering a larger portion of the load, taking up more and more of this atmospheric carbon dioxide….
Goulven G. Laruelle, Wei-Jun Cai, Xinping Hu, Nicolas Gruber, Fred T. Mackenzie, Pierre Regnier. Continental shelves as a variable but increasing global sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide. Nature Communications, 2018; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-02738-z
Findings reveal that a variety of management strategies have the potential to improve soil water infiltration rates, with possible benefits for soil carbon as well.
Researchers identified a shortage of well-replicated and detailed experiments in all grazing management categories, and call for additional research of both soil water and soil carbon properties for these critical agroecosystems
The potential to improve soils to help farmers and ranchers adapt to and mitigate climate change has generated significant enthusiasm. Within this discussion, grasslands have surfaced as being particularly important, due to their geographic range, their capacity to store substantial quantities of carbon relative to cultivated croplands and their potential role in mitigating droughts and floods. However, leveraging grasslands for climate change mitigation and adaptation will require a better understanding of how farmers and ranchers who rely on them for their livelihoods can improve management and related outcomes.
To investigate opportunities for such improvements, we conducted a meta-analysis of field experiments that investigated how soil water infiltration rates are affected by a range of management options: adding complexity to grazing patterns, reducing stocking rates or extended rest from grazing. Further, to explore the relationships between observed changes in soil water infiltration and soil carbon, we identified papers that reported data on both metrics. We found that in 81.9% of all cases, responses of infiltration rates to identified management treatments (response ratios) were above zero, with infiltration rates increasing by 59.3 ± 7.3%. Mean response ratios from unique management categories were not significantly different, although the effect of extended rest (67.9 ± 8.5%, n = 140 from 31 experiments) was slightly higher than from reducing stocking rates (42.0 ± 10.8%; n = 63 from 17 experiments) or adding complexity (34.0 ± 14.1%, n =17 from 11 experiments). We did not find a significant effect of several other variables, including treatment duration, mean annual precipitation or soil texture; however, analysis of aridity indices suggested that grazing management may have a slightly larger effect in more humid environments. Within our database, we found that 42% of complexity studies, 41% of stocking rate studies and 29% of extended rest studies also reported at least some measure of soil carbon. Within the subset of cases where both infiltration rates and carbon were reported, response ratios were largely positive for both variables (at least 64% of cases had positive mean response ratios in all management categories).
Overall, our findings reveal that a variety of management strategies have the potential to improve soil water infiltration rates, with possible benefits for soil carbon as well. However, we identified a shortage of well-replicated and detailed experiments in all grazing management categories, and call for additional research of both soil water and soil carbon properties for these critical agroecosystems.
Planting 20 percent more trees in our megacities would double the benefits of urban forests, like pollution reduction, carbon sequestration and energy reduction. The authors of the study say city planners, residents and other stakeholders should start looking within cities for natural resources and conserve the nature in our urban areas by planting more trees….
T. Endreny, R. Santagata, A. Perna, C. De Stefano, R.F. Rallo, S. Ulgiati. Implementing and managing urban forests: A much needed conservation strategy to increase ecosystem services and urban wellbeing. Ecological Modelling, 2017; 360: 328 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2017.07.016
Current human use of land is responsible for ~halving the potential storage of carbon by that land.
Through large-scale grazing and other uses of grasslands, as well as forest “management,” humans have subtracted from Earth’s potential carbon sequestration in vegetation an amount equal to deforestation.
Earth’s vegetation currently stores around 450 petagrams of carbon [450 billion tons (or gigatons Gt) of carbon or 1665 Gt of CO2e] and in a hypothetical without land use changes, potential vegetation would store around 916 petagrams of carbon, under current climate conditions.
Avoiding deforestation is necessary but not enough to reverse climate change.
Scenarios that limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees [Celsius] require not only rapid cessation of greenhouse gas emissions but also removal of somewhere between about 100 and 300 billion tons of carbon [or 370 to 1110 billion tons (Gt) of CO2e] from the atmosphere; restoring vegetation is key contribution to controlling climate change
In this age of climate change, we naturally train our attention on all the fossil fuels being combusted for human use — but scientists have long known that what’s happening is also all about the land.
Just as buried fossil fuels are filled with carbon from ancient plant and animal life, so too are living trees and vegetation on Earth’s surface today. Razing forests or plowing grasslands puts carbon in the atmosphere just like burning fossil fuels does.
Now, new research provides a surprisingly large estimate of just how consequential our treatment of land surfaces and vegetation has been for the planet and its atmosphere. If true, it’s a finding that could shape not only our response to climate change, but our understanding of ourselves as agents of planetary transformation….
….Using a series of detailed maps derived from satellite information and other types of ecological measurements, Erb and his colleagues estimated how much carbon is contained in Earth’s current vegetation. The number is massive: 450 billion tons of carbon, which, if it were to somehow arrive in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, would amount to over a trillion tons of the gas. (The mass is greater due to the addition of oxygen molecules.)
But the study also presented an even larger and perhaps more consequential number: 916 billion tons. That’s the amount of carbon, the research calculated, that could reside in the world’s vegetation — so not in the atmosphere — if humans somehow entirely ceased all uses of land and allowed it to return to its natural state. The inference is that current human use of land is responsible for roughly halving the potential storage of carbon by that land….
…the impact calculation is so large because humans have done far more than just bring about deforestation, which Erb said accounts for about half of the loss of potential vegetation. … “But the other half, in most studies, is completely missing.”…
…The study found that there are two far-less-recognized components of how humans have subtracted from Earth’s potential vegetation — and that in combination they are just as substantial as deforestation. Those are large-scale grazing and other uses of grasslands, as well as forest “management.” With the latter, many trees and other types of vegetation are subtracted from forests — often the larger and older trees due to logging — but the forests as a whole don’t disappear. They’re just highly thinned out.
“This effect is quite massive, more massive than we expected actually,” Erb said….
….The research means that so-called degraded land — not fully deforested but not “natural” or whole, either — is a phenomenon to be reckoned with.
“It suggests that the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere from land use is approximately equal to the amount still retained,” said Tom Lovejoy, an ecologist at George Mason University who was not involved in the work. “That means the restoration agenda is even more important than previously thought and highlights the enormous amount of degraded land in the world.”…
….“Scenarios that limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees [Celsius] require not only rapid cessation of greenhouse gas emissions but also removal of somewhere between about 100 and 300 billion tons of carbon [or 370 to 1110 billion tons (Gt) of CO2e] from the atmosphere,” Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, said in an email.
“This paper suggests that restoring vegetation around the world could in principle achieve that,” Duffy continued, noting that if all the potential vegetation were restored it would offset some 50 years of global carbon emissions. While “the full theoretical potential will never be realized in practice … this paper indicates that restoring vegetation could make an extremely important contribution to controlling global climate change.”
Abstract: Carbon stocks in vegetation have a key role in the climate system. However, the magnitude, patterns and uncertainties of carbon stocks and the effect of land use on the stocks remain poorly quantified. Here we show, using state-of-the-art datasets, that vegetation currently stores around 450 petagrams of carbon. In the hypothetical absence of land use, potential vegetation would store around 916 petagrams of
carbon, under current climate conditions. This difference highlights the massive effect of land use on biomass stocks. Deforestation and other land-cover changes are responsible for 53–58% of the difference between current and potential biomass stocks. Land management effects (the biomass stock changes induced by land use within the same land cover) contribute 42–47%, but have been underestimated in the literature. Therefore, avoiding deforestation is necessary but not sufficient for mitigation of climate change. Our results imply that trade-offs exist between conserving carbon stocks on managed land and raising the contribution of biomass to raw material and energy supply for the mitigation of climate change. Efforts to raise biomass stocks are currently verifiable only in temperate forests, where their potential is limited. By contrast, large uncertainties hinder verification in the tropical forest, where the largest potential is located, pointing to challenges for the upcoming stocktaking exercises under the Paris agreement.
The last great hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change may lie in a substance so commonplace that we typically ignore it or else walk all over it: the soil beneath our feet.
The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.
Now scientists are documenting how sequestering carbon in soil can produce a double dividend: It reduces climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere, and it restores the health of degraded soil and increases agricultural yields. Many scientists and farmers believe the emerging understanding of soil’s role in climate stability and agricultural productivity will prompt a paradigm shift in agriculture, triggering the abandonment of conventional practices like tillage, crop residue removal, mono-cropping, excessive grazing and blanket use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide. Even cattle, usually considered climate change culprits because they belch at least 25 gallons of methane a day, are being studied as a potential part of the climate change solution because of their role in naturally fertilizing soil and cycling nutrients.
The climate change crisis is so far advanced that even drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t prevent a convulsive future by itself — the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere ensures dire trouble ahead. The most plausible way out is to combine emission cuts with “negative-emission” or “drawdown” technologies, which pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and into the other pools. Most of these proposed technologies are forms of geoengineering, dubious bets on huge climate manipulations with a high likelihood of disastrous unintended consequences.
On the other hand, carbon sequestration in soil and vegetation is an effective way to pull carbon from the atmosphere that in some ways is the opposite of geoengineering. Instead of overcoming nature, it reinforces it, promoting the propagation of plant life to return carbon to the soil that was there in the first place — until destructive agricultural practices prompted its release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That process started with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and accelerated over the last century as industrial farming and ranching rapidly expanded.
Among the advocates of so-called regenerative agriculture is the climate scientist and activist James Hansen, lead author of a paper published in July that calls for the adoption of “steps to improve soil fertility and increase its carbon content” to ward off “deleterious climate impacts.”
Rattan Lal, the director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State, estimates that soil has the potential to sequester carbon at a rate of between 0.9 and 2.6 gigatons per year. That’s a small part of the 10 gigatons a year of current carbon emissions, but it’s still significant. Somewhat reassuringly, some scientists believe the estimate is low.
….The techniques that regenerative farmers use vary with soil, climate and crop. They start from the understanding that healthy soil teems with more than a billion microorganisms per teaspoon and the behavior of those organisms facilitates hardy plant life. To fertilize their fields, regenerative farmers use nutrient-rich manure or compost, avoiding as much as possible chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can kill huge quantities of organic matter and reduce plants’ resilience. They don’t like to till the soil, since tillage increases carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Some farmers combine livestock, cover crops and row crops sequentially on the same field, or plant perennials, shrubs and even trees along with row crops. Leaving soil bare during off-seasons is taboo, since barren soil easily erodes, depleting more carbon from the soil; regenerative farmers instead plant cover crops to capture more carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere….
…California began an initiative in 2015 to incorporate soil health into the state’s farm and ranch operations. Some of the pioneering studies showing regenerative agriculture’s benefits have been carried out at the Marin Carbon Project, on a self-proclaimed carbon-farming ranch in the pastoral reaches of Marin County 30 miles northwest of San Francisco. A four-year study there showed that a one-time application of compost caused an increase in plant productivity that has continued ever since, and that the soil’s carbon content grew year after year, at a rate equivalent to the removal from the atmosphere of 1.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per acre annually.
Whendee Silver, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley who is the project’s lead scientist, calculated along with a colleague that if as little as 5 percent of California’s rangelands was coated with one-quarter to one-half inch of compost, the resulting carbon sequestration would be the equivalent of the annual greenhouse emissions of nine million cars. The diversion of green waste from the state’s overcrowded landfills would also prevent it from generating methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
Some scientists remain skeptical of regenerative agriculture, arguing that its impact will be small or will work only with certain soils. It also faces significant obstacles, such as a scarcity of research funding and the requirements of federal crop insurance, which frequently disqualifies farmers who plant cover crops….
…. In a region [TX and OK] where rainfall is usually precious, some conventional soil has become so lifeless that it absorbs as little as half an inch of water per hour, Mr. Durham said, while regenerative fields can absorb more than eight inches an hour.
Mr. Durham’s farmers are learning a lesson that resonates throughout human interactions with the natural world: People reap more benefit from nature when they give up trying to vanquish it and instead see it clearly, as a demanding but indispensable ally. Because of carbon’s climate change connection, we’ve been conditioned to think of it as the enemy, when in fact it’s as vital to life as water. The way to make amends is to put it back in the soil, where it belongs.
..The study found that timing plays a key role in how well wet soils retain organic matter. While soils with consistently high moisture content do retain organic matter over the long term, soils may actually lose organic matter during shorter spans of flooding. The findings have implications for agricultural fields that are poorly drained or flood for a few weeks of the year before drying out, Hall said. The study also shows that wetlands, thought of as a useful tool for conservation and carbon sequestration, may require consistent flooding to realize environmental benefits from organic matter accumulation….
…”We found that periodically wet soils don’t necessarily protect organic matter from decomposition and may lead to losses, at least over a timescale of weeks to months,” he said.
The study drew on research conducted in an ISU laboratory. The researchers took soil samples from a central Iowa cornfield and subjected the sample to various conditions before conducting chemical analyses.
Hall said future research should widen in scope and include field experiments as well as laboratory-based work. He said he wants to test how various drainage techniques influence organic matter loss as well as pinpoint the length of time required for wet soil to realize environmental benefits….
Wenjuan Huang, Steven J. Hall. Elevated moisture stimulates carbon loss from mineral soils by releasing protected organic matter. Nature Communications, 2017; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01998-z