U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Faster Decomposition Under Increased Atmospheric CO2 Limits Soil Carbon Storage
Published: May 02, 2014
Posted: August 11, 2014

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is released to the atmosphere when humans burn oil, coal, and gasoline, and it is the major cause of global warming. Soils can store carbon, helping to counteract rising CO2. Carbon accumulates in soil through many years of plant photosynthesis, but also is lost from soil as microscopic organisms, mostly bacteria and fungi, decompose soil carbon, converting it back to CO2 and releasing it to the atmosphere. The balance of these two processes and the future of the soil carbon sink are uncertain. How much will soil organic carbon persist, and how much will soil microorganisms convert back to CO2, returning it to the atmosphere? This study compared data gathered from experiments around the world with models of the soil carbon cycle to test how carbon release from soil by microorganisms responds to rising CO2. The main finding was surprising: increased plant growth caused by rising atmospheric CO2 was associated with higher rates of CO2 release from soil. On balance, the findings suggest that if rising CO2 enhances carbon storage in soil at all, the effect will be small. These results indicate that soil carbon may not be as stable as previously thought, and that soil microorganisms exert more direct control on long-term carbon accumulation than currently represented in global models.

Reference: Van Groenign, K. J., X. Qi, C. W. Osenberg, Y. Luo, and B. A. 2014. “Faster Decomposition Under Increased Atmospheric CO2 Limits Soil Carbon Storage,” Science 344(6183), 508-509. DOI:10.1126/science.1249534. (Reference link)

Contact: Renu Joseph, SC-23.1, (301) 903-9237, Daniel Stover, SC-23.1, (301) 903-0289
Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Nutrient Cycling
  • Research Area: Microbes and Communities

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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