International study shows how, at one meter depth, soil gives up more than one-third of its pyrogenic carbon after experiencing a 4°C temperature rise in less than five years
by Matteo Cavallito
Soil is an invaluable resource for storing carbon. But the stress generated by climate change makes the soil itself particularly vulnerable by reducing its ability to store the element. This is highlighted in a recent study involving researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California, and the University of Zurich.
“Our study shows that climate change will affect all aspects of soil carbon and nutrient cycling. It also shows that in terms of carbon sequestration, there’s no silver bullet,” explained Margaret Torn, Berkeley Lab researcher and lead author of the investigation in a note released by the U.S. university. “IIf we want soil to sustain carbon sequestration in a warming world,” she added, “we will need better soil management practices, which can mean minimal disturbance of soils during forest management and agriculture.”
Grasslands, pastures and forests capture a quarter of global CO2
The carbon captured by forests, grasslands and pastures, researchers recall, amounts to about 25 percent of global emissions. The role of plants, which store the element in cell walls and soil during photosynthesis, is crucial. Carbon stored by soil is about twice the total in the atmosphere. Half of that amount lies below the top 20 centimeters.
The problem is that a vicious cycle is created between soil and climate change. Deforestation and agriculture, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recalls, are responsible for about one-fifth of global greenhouse gases.
These emissions promote rising temperatures, which, in turn, lead to a significant decline in carbon stocks stored in soils. By 2021, the same group of researchers had estimated a 33 percent loss over five years in forest soils. The new study highlights in more detail the dynamics that lead to the loss of organic carbon created by plants during photosynthesis.
In the experiment, conducted at the University of California’s Blodgett Forest Research Station in the Sierra Nevada, researchers warmed soil layers up to one meter deep by 4 degrees Celsius, simulating the conditions predicted for the end of the 21st century (+4°C precisely) in the case of no significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
“After 4.5 years of warming, the absolute concentration of pyrogenic carbon (per gram soil) was 37 ± 8% lower in warmed subsoils,” the research states.
In addition, “the wood-derived compound lignin was 17% lower. Finally, hydrolysable lipids were 28 ± 3% lower in warmed compared with control subsoils.” These lipids, the researchers point out, are typically composed of cutin and suberin, the compounds found in leaves, stems and roots that protect plants from pathogens.
New studies on soil carbon planned
The study looked at pyrogenic carbon, which is that soil organic carbon that originates from burned vegetation and other remnants of organic matter that have undergone fire. This subsurface element is considered to be very stable, that is, not very prone to leakage that would lead to additional CO2 emissions.
However, the study concludes, pyrogenic carbon is “vulnerable to decomposition and propose that molecular structure alone may not protect compounds from degradation under future warming.”
The researchers let it be known that they plan to sample the soil under study again in another four and a half years to determine the impact of nine years of warming on soil composition and health. A similar new experiment is also planned in the grasslands of the Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California.