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Down and dirty: Airborne ozone can alter forest soil

HOUGHTON, Mich.--The industrial pollutant ozone, long known to be harmful to many kinds of plants, can also affect the very earth in which they grow.

Researchers at Michigan Technological University and the North Central Research Station of the USDA Forest Service have discovered that ozone can reduce soil carbon formation--a measure of the amount of organic matter being added to the soil. Their findings are published in the Oct. 16 issue of the journal Nature.

The scientists exposed forest stands to increased levels of two atmospheric pollutants, ozone and carbon dioxide. Soil carbon formation dropped off dramatically in the plots fumigated with a mix of ozone and carbon dioxide compared to carbon dioxide alone.

"This research shows that changes in atmospheric chemistry can cascade through the forest and affect soils," says Dr. Kurt Pregitzer, a coauthor of the Nature paper and a professor in Michigan Tech's School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. "Reductions we have observed in plant growth under elevated ozone appear to result in similar reductions in soil carbon formation."

The findings could have implications for the health of forests in areas with high levels of ozone, says Dr. Wendy Loya, the lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral research scientist at Michigan Tech. "Under normal conditions, forest litter, which is made up of fallen leaves, twigs and dead roots, decomposes and releases carbon that is then stored in the soil," she says. "Under conditions of elevated ozone, the amount of soil carbon formed is reduced."

Because increased carbon dioxide tends to cause plants to grow more quickly and take in more carbon from the atmosphere, some scientists and policymakers have speculated that forests could become "carbon sinks," absorbing carbon dioxide and mitigating its greenhouse effects.

However, the soil in the plots exposed to an ozone/carbon dioxide mixture gained only ha
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Contact: Marcia Goodrich
mtunews@mtu.edu
906-487-2343
North Central Research Station
15-Oct-2003


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