Significantly more carbon is stored in the world's soils than is present in the atmosphere. In a process called a "positive feedback," global warming may stimulate decomposition of soil organic matter, thus releasing heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas to the atmosphere, possibly causing the rate of global warming to increase further. Disagreement exists, however, regarding the effects of climate change on global soil carbon stocks. Eric Davidson, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, has written a review paper that clarifies the issues regarding temperature sensitivity of decomposition within a framework that helps to focus the ensuing debate and research. Co-authored with Ivan Janssens of the University of Antwerpen (Belgium), the study is being published in an upcoming issue of Nature.
According to Dr. Davidson, interest in this topic is high because of its importance in the global carbon cycle and potential feedbacks to climate change. "The arctic, in particular, is experiencing very rapid warming, causing permafrost to melt and some peatlands to dry out, thus potentially exposing huge stocks of previously frozen and waterlogged carbon to decomposition. We need to understand how much of this carbon that is stored in soils, peatlands, and permafrost is susceptible to loss in a warmer world. If you unplug your refrigerator, you can demonstrate that your food, which is basically organic matter, spoils more quickly when it is warm. However, because the soil is a complex mixture of minerals and organic matter derived from plant leaves and roots, soil scientists and ecologists have had difficulty teasing out the conditions and types of organic matter that respond significantly to temperature changes." The review paper by Davidson and Janssens sets forth a description of how both the chemical complexity of carbon molecules and the soil conditions in which they are found determine the rates at which they decompose.
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Woods Hole Research Center
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