Climate Change, Environmental Hazards

Carbon Released from Soil Could Exacerbate Global Warming

Carbon stored in arctic and sub-arctic soil could be released if warming in the region continues, thus intensifying climate change.
Photo: Shutterstock

One of the many threats of global climate change is that, on a warming Earth, carbon trapped in soil will be released, which would make the entire problem even worse. Until recently, studies of this possibility have been mixed. According to a new study, it seems that the difference is caused largely by where the study is done.

In colder regions, soil has been slowly collecting carbon for some time, as microbes in that soil are much more sluggish than they are in temperate regions.

“But as you start to warm, the activities of these microbes increase, and that’s when the losses start to happen,” says Thomas Crowther, the study’s lead author. “The scary thing is, these cold regions are the places that are expected to warm the most under climate change.”

The study, led by researchers from Yale, found that warming soil could produce a 17-percent increase in emissions by the middle of the 21st century, effectively adding another United States’ worth of emissions to the already severe problem of excessive carbon emissions from industry.

The more the global temperature rises, the worse the problem will get, with the expected two degree Celsius increase by mid-century being more than we can actually afford if we are to avoid runaway global climate change.

The Arctic and sub-Arctic, which have the largest soil-based carbon stores, area already expected to warm faster than many other parts of the world, meaning this extra carbon could be released sooner rather than later.

The plus side of this study, and there is one, is that now we know this, which means we can focus more research efforts on the issue and hopefully figure out a way to slow down this release. Even if we can’t find a way to directly address the issue of increased carbon release from these soil stores, it is more evidence for the importance of reducing emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere.

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