Long before most people ever heard of climate change, scientists divided a patch of Harvard University-owned forest in central Massachusetts into 18 identical 6-meter
by 6-meter squares. A canopy of red maple and black oak trees hangs there, looming above the same stony soil tilled by colonial farmers. Rich in organic material, it
was exactly what the researchers were looking for.
They broke the land up into six blocks of three squares each. In every block, one square was left alone, one was threaded with heating cables that elevated its
temperature 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) above the surrounding area. The third square was threaded with cables but never turned on, as a control.
That was 26 years ago. The purpose was to measure how carbon dioxide may escape from the earth as the atmosphere warms.
What they found, published yesterday in the
journal Science, may mean the accelerating catastrophe of global warming has been fuelled in part by warm dirt. As the Earth heats up, microbes in the soil accelerate
the breakdown of organic materials and move on to others
that may have once been ignored, each time releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Extrapolating from their forest study, the researchers estimate that over this century the warming induced from global soil loss, at the rate they monitored, will be
“equivalent to the past two decades of carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and is comparable in magnitude to the cumulative carbon losses to the atmosphere due
to human-driven land use change during the past two centuries.”
The good news, however, is that the research community is now fully on the case. Over the past week, at least four high-profile papers largely funded by the US
government have contributed new evidence, observations, and insight into the role of soil and forests in the global carbon cycle — the flow of material in and out of
land, air, life, and sea that’s currently broken and getting worse.
From a technical perspective, what they’re talking about here is plain old dirt. Ground. Loam. Land. Trees and leaves. From a practical perspective, it’s something
different entirely. Soil is also cotton, corn, soybean, wheat, oranges, cattle, and the rest of humanity’s food and fibre. When it’s healthy, it grows most everything
we need. It absorbs and retains moisture that might otherwise flood valleys where people live. It also absorbs and retains carbon that might otherwise be heating up
The atmosphere gets all the attention in climate change, mostly because that’s where the warming happens. Even the oceans draw more concern than soil, especially when
their warming temperatures help fuel massive storms and floods that kill humans and destroy communities. The seas hold 60 times more carbon than the atmosphere and
absorb more than 90 per cent of the heat that industrial pollution generates.
The soil, meanwhile, has been mostly ignored until lately. It’s both hugely influential on global warming and something humanity has a good deal of control over. The
top 3 meters or so of earth store more carbon than the entire atmosphere and all plants combined. Taking care of the planet’s soil is “critical for stabilising
atmospheric CO2 concentrations,” according to a synthesis by Stanford University’s Robert Jackson and five colleagues, published Thursday in Annual Review of Ecology,
Evolution & Systematics.
Scientists aren’t going to resolve the global carbon cycle down to the last atom soon. What the Annual Review authors do point out, though, is that land use and
agricultural practices can simultaneously trap carbon in soil—helping the fight against warming—and improving yields for all the things humanity’s swelling population
will need in coming decades. Reducing tillage and fallow time, managing grazing better, planting more legumes, and other practices all help keep more carbon in the
Back when the soil researchers were setting up their Harvard forest plots in 1991, Earth-system science and soil-health science were completely different fields.
That’s been changing in ways that should be encouraged, according to another report, in Global Change Biology, also published Thursday. Binding scientists,
policymakers, and land-owners together in conversation could have a significant effect on reducing global CO2, perhaps offsetting projected emissions from thawing
permafrost in the rapidly melting, high-latitude Northern Hemisphere.
The authors tout as a hopeful example the International
Soil Carbon Network, a scientific initiative designed to pool data and identify gaps in monitoring and
knowledge. “Soils have entered an ‘anthropogenic state,’ with most of the global surface area either directly managed by humans or indirectly influenced by human
activities,” they write.