New paper co-authored by UAA’s Jeffrey Welker finds losses of soil carbon under climate warming might equal U.S. emissions

December 1, 2016

A new global analysis finds that warming temperatures will trigger the release of trillions of kilograms of carbon from the planet’s soils, driven largely by the losses of carbon in the world’s colder places.

New Haven, Conn. & Anchorage, Alaska—For decades, scientists have speculated that rising global temperatures might alter the ability of soils to store carbon, potentially releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and triggering runaway climate change. Yet thousands of studies worldwide have produced mixed signals on whether this storage capacity will actually decrease—or even increase—as the planet warms.

It turns out scientists might have been looking in the wrong places.

A new Yale-led study published in the journal Nature finds that warming will drive the loss of at least 55 trillion kilograms of carbon from the soil by mid-century, or about 17 percent more than the projected emissions due to human-related activities during that period. That would be roughly the equivalent of adding to the planet another industrialized country the size of the United States.

Critically, the researchers found that carbon losses will be greatest in the world’s colder places, at high latitudes, which had largely been missing from most previous research. In those regions, massive stocks of carbon have built up over thousands of years and slow microbial activity has kept them relatively secure.

Professor Jeff Welker’s (Fulbright Distinguished U.S. Arctic Chair at UAA) research program in these cold systems (i.e. Northern Alaska and Greenland) have been paramount to these discoveries, as his experimental studies have been in place since 1994 for Alaska and since 2003 for Greenland.

Most of the previous research had been conducted in the world’s temperate regions, where there were smaller carbon stocks to begin with. Studies that focused only on these regions would have missed the vast proportion of potential soil carbon losses, said lead author Thomas Crowther, who conducted his research while a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology.

“Carbon stores are greatest in places like the Arctic and the sub-Arctic, where the soil is cold and often frozen. In those conditions microbes are less active and so carbon has been allowed to build up over many centuries,” said Crowther.

“But as you start to warm, the activities of those microbes increases, and that’s when the losses start to happen,” he said. “The scary thing is, these cold regions are the places that are expected to warm the most under climate change.”

The results are based on an analysis of raw data on stored soil carbon from dozens of studies conducted over the past 20 years in different regions of the world.

Map of predicted changes in soil C stocks per pixel by 2050 under the ‘no acclimatization’ scenario.

Map of predicted changes in soil C stocks per pixel by 2050 under the ‘no acclimatization’ scenario.

The study predicts that for one degree of warming, about 30 petagrams of soil carbon will be released into the atmosphere, or about twice as much as is emitted annually due to human-related activities [a petagram is equal to one trillion kilograms]. This is particularly concerning, Crowther said, because previous climate studies predicted that the planet is likely to warm by 2 degrees Celsius by mid-century.

Other scientists on the team include Mark Bradford, professor of terrestrial ecosystem ecology at Yale; Clara Rowe, who earned a Master of Environmental Management degree at Yale in 2015; and Yale doctoral candidate Noah Sokol, as well as collaborating researchers from more than 30 other institutions.

For Bradford, the analysis provides important clarity on the question of why soil-warming studies appear to provide contradictory evidence, with some showing losses of soil carbon and some showing no change.

“The effects are strongly dependent on where you look,” Bradford said. “Now that we know this, we can begin to develop more confidence in the idea that this biological feedback is real, and hence likely to accelerate human-induced climate change.”

The study considered only soil carbon losses in response to warming. There are several other biological processes—such as accelerated plant growth as a result of carbon dioxide increases—that could dampen or enhance the effect of this soil carbon feedback. Understanding these interacting processes at a global scale is critical to understanding climate change, the researchers said.

“Getting a handle on these kinds of feedbacks is essential if we’re going to make meaningful projections about future climate conditions,” said Crowther, who is now completing a Marie Curie fellowship at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. “Only then can we generate realistic greenhouse gas emission targets that are effective at limiting climate change.”

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