Hotter Tropical Soils Emit More Carbon Dioxide: Sixty-five billion metric tons of the plant-warming gas could enter the atmosphere by 2100
This article is one of the more contemptible to come out of the NYT. Does CO2 really WARM plants? First I have heard of it. It is usually said to warm the whole globe. Its effect on plants is to promote their growth. And does soil "spew" anything? It certainly doesn't emit carbon. Carbon is a solid element. CO2 is a gas.
And what does it matter anyway? Atmospheric CO2 levels and global temperature are very weakly correlated so claiming a causal relationship between the two is tendentious
Humble dirt could pack an unexpected climate punch according to a new study published in the journal Nature. An experiment that heated soil underneath a tropical rainforest to mimic temperatures expected in coming decades found that hotter soils released 55 percent more planet-warming carbon dioxide than did nearby unwarmed areas.
If the results apply throughout the tropics, much of the carbon stored underground could be released as the planet heats up. “The loss rate is huge,” said Andrew Nottingham, an ecologist at the University of Edinburgh, who led the study. “It’s a badnews story.” The thin skin of soil that covers much of our planet’s land stores vast amounts of carbon — more, in total, than in all plants and the atmosphere combined. That carbon feeds hordes of bacteria and fungi, which build some of it into more microbes while respiring the rest into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Many of these microbes grow more active at warmer temperatures, increasing digestion and respiration rates.
The finding “is another example of why we need to worry more” about how fast the globe is warming, said Eric Davidson, an environmental scientist at the University of Maryland College of Environmental Science in Frostburg who was not involved in the research.
Ecologists began in the early 1990s building apparatuses to artificially heat soils. Such experiments in temperate and boreal forests have shown that carbon-rich soils almost always belch carbon dioxide when warmed. In 2016, a group of researchers estimated that by 2050, soils could release so much of the gas that it would be like adding the carbon emissions of a new country the size of the United States.
But that study left out the perpetually warm, mega-biodiverse tropics, where a third of all soil carbon resides. Figuring out the fate of this carbon would require grappling with the many pitfalls of doing research in the tropics: humidity, storms and hungry animals that can take a toll on research equipment — chewing through electrical wires or protective coverings, for example — and on researchers themselves.
In 2014, Dr. Nottingham, then a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh, traveled to Barro Colorado Island, a humancreated island in the Panama Canal area that’s home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He buried electrical wires in five circular plots to a depth of nearly four feet. For protection from the elements and ravenous insects, he shielded the wires inside metal structures shaped like freakishly large spiders. Measurements were logged inside weatherproof boxes.
“Our experiment was basically me as a postdoc making things out of a D.I.Y. shop,” Dr. Nottingham said. The team encountered a number of hiccups, including electrical connections that blew up and cost the researchers nearly a year and much of their budget to repair.
Starting in November 2016, the wires’ electrical resistance began warming the soil by almost 6 degrees Fahrenheit, within the range of how much the tropics are projected to warm by century’s end according to current climate models. Other equipment measured the carbon dioxide coming out of both experimental plots and nearby plots that weren’t artificially warmed as well as microbial activity in the plots.
An experiment warming soil in El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico had turned on two months earlier but was pummeled by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes in September 2017; the study team didn’t turn the power back on for a year.
The results from Dr. Nottingham’s team are sobering: Over two years, warmed soils spewed out 55 percent more carbon than control plots. “This is a very large response,” said Dr. Margaret Torn, an ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California, who runs a similar warming experiment in a California forest that reported a roughly 35 percent increase in carbon emissions after two years. “It’s one of the largest I’ve heard of.” If the entire tropics were to behave similarly, the researchers estimate that 65 billion metric tons of carbon would enter the atmosphere by 2100 — more than six times the annual emissions from all human-related sources.
Scaling the results to account for the entire tropics is complicated, however. The soils on Barro Colorado Island are richer in nutrients than many others, such as those of much of the vast Amazon rainforest, Dr. Davidson noted. That could make it easier for the Panamanian microbes to ramp up their activity. Microbial communities in African and Asian soils are very different from those in the Americas, Dr. Torn added.
And while there is agreement that climate models need to treat soil more realistically, how best to do that is unclear. The new study strikes a blow against simple theories predicting that tropical soils will respond weakly to warming, said Kathe Todd- Brown, a soil scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who was not part of the research team. But to really get a handle on the problem, she said, modelers will need information about how microbes respond to variations in soil moisture and nutrients in addition to temperature.