Research published in Science today found that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cause soil microbes to produce more carbon dioxide, accelerating climate change.
Two Northern Arizona University researchers led the study, which challenges previous understanding about how carbon accumulates in soil. Increased levels of CO2 accelerate plant growth, which causes more absorption of CO2 through photosynthesis.
Until now, the accepted belief was that carbon is then stored in wood and soil for a long time, slowing climate change. Yet this new research suggests that the extra carbon provides fuel to microorganisms in the soil whose byproducts (such as CO2) are released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
"Our findings mean that nature is not as efficient in slowing global warming as we previously thought," said Kees Jan van Groenigen, research fellow at the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at NAU and lead author of the study. "By overlooking this effect of increased CO2 on soil microbes, models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have overestimated the potential of soil to store carbon and mitigate the greenhouse effect."
In order to better understand how soil microbes respond to the changing atmosphere, the study's authors utilized statistical techniques that compare data to models and test for general patterns across studies. They analyzed published results from 53 different experiments in forests, grasslands and agricultural fields around the world. These experiments all measured how extra CO2 in the atmosphere affects plant growth, microbial production of carbon dioxide, and the total amount of soil carbon at the end of the experiment.
"We've long thought soils to be a stable, safe place to store carbon, but our results show soil carbon is not as stable as we previously thought," said Bruce Hungate, director of the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at NAU and study author. "We should not be complacent about continued subsidies from nature in slowing climate change."
Explore further: Study questions nature's ability to 'self-correct' climate change
"Faster Decomposition Under Increased Atmospheric CO2 Limits Soil Carbon Storage," by K.J. van Groenigen et al. Science, 2014.