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Warmer forests expel carbon from soils creating “vicious cycle”

Temperate forest in Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
Temperate forest in Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

As the world warms, temperate forests could become a source of carbon dioxide emission rather than a sink according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Scientists found that two forest sites in the U.S. (Wisconsin and North Carolina) emitted long-stored carbon from their soils when confronted with temperatures 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit (5.5-11.1 degrees Celsius) higher than average.

“We found that decades-old carbon in surface soils is released to the atmosphere faster when temperatures become warmer,” explained lead author Francesca Hopkins with the UNiversity of California Irvine in a press release. “This suggests that soils could accelerate global warming through a vicious cycle in which man-made warming releases carbon from soils to the atmosphere, which, in turn, would warm the planet more.”

The researchers discovered that topsoils (15 centimeters and up) could release between 1,750-4,700 kilograms of carbon dioxide per square meter at higher temperatures. Most importantly the team found that older carbon (at least ten year old) was vulnerable to warming.

“Our results indicate that large amounts of carbon […] were vulnerable to increased decomposition losses with warming. The fact that we saw similar results at the two sites, despite differences in soil carbon stabilization therein, suggests that the pattern we observed may apply more broadly,” the researchers write, adding that “the large amount of carbon in forest soils globally suggests that soil carbon could become a source of atmospheric
CO2 under global warming.”

Forests are vital carbon storehouses through sequestering the greenhouse gas and storing it long-term in their soils. However this study raises concerns that if temperatures rise high enough, long-buried carbon could create a feedback cycle that would be difficult, if not impossible, to stall.

“These are carbon dioxide sources that, in effect, we can’t control,” Hopkins adds. “We could control how much gasoline we burn, how much coal we burn, but we don’t have control over how much carbon the soil will release once this gets going.”

Since the early Twentieth Century, temperatures have risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.44 degrees Fahrenheit) worldwide due to burning fossils fuels, deforestation, industrial agriculture, and other human impacts. While global governments have pledged to keep temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), they have done little to do to achieve that goal. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that the world is currently on track to hit 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

Carbon in the atmosphere recently hit 400 parts per million above the Arctic for the first time in at least 800,000 years.

CITATION: Francesca M. Hopkins, Margaret S. Torn, and Susan E. Trumbore. Warming accelerates decomposition of decades-old
carbon in forest soils. PNAS. 2012.

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