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

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Soils Could Release Much More Carbon Than Expected as Climate Warms
Published: March 09, 2017
Posted: April 21, 2017

One of the experimental heating plots at Blodgett Forest Research Station in California. The ring around the plot protects the wiring supplying 22 heating cables that each go 2.4 meters into the ground. Each plot also has soil temperature and moisture sensors that measure continuously and automated chambers that measure soil respiration every 30 minutes. [Image courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory]

Findings from a whole-soil warming experiment show that deeper soil layers are more sensitive to warming than previously thought.

The Science 
Scientists created a field experiment in a conifer forest in California to explore, for the first time, what happens to organic carbon trapped in soil when all soils are warmed. In this case, the soil layers extended to a depth of 100 cm. Warming the whole profile by 4°C increased annual soil respiration by 34% to 37%. More than 40% of this increase in respiration came from below 15-cm depth (i.e., below the depth considered by most studies). 

The Impact
The impact of warming on soil carbon dioxide (CO2) flux is a major uncertainty in climate feedbacks. This whole-soil warming experiment found a larger respiration response than (1) many other controlled experiments, which may have missed the response of deeper soils; and (2) most models. Thus, the strength of the soil carbon-climate feedback may be underestimated.

Soil organic carbon harbors three times as much carbon as Earth’s atmosphere, more than half of that below 20-cm depth. The response of whole-soil profiles to warming has not been tested in situ. In this deep warming experiment in mineral soil, CO2 production from all soil depths increased significantly with 4°C warming; annual soil respiration increased by 34% to 37%. All depths responded to warming with similar temperature sensitivities, driven by decomposition of decadal-aged carbon. Whole-soil warming reveals a larger soil respiration response than many in situ experiments, most of which only warm the surface soil, and models.  

In this year-round experiment, plots were warmed by a ring of 22 vertical heating cables installed to 2.4-m depth. Three plots (3-m diameter each) were warmed, and three served as controls. Soil respiration was measured by chambers at the surface and gas tubes at five depths. Radiocarbon content of CO2 and soil fractions suggests that respiration—and its warming response—was dominated by decadal cycling carbon.

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover
Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov; 301-903-0289

PI Contact
Margaret S. Torn
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program under contract number DE-AC02-05CH11231.

C. E. Hicks Pries, C. Castanha, R. C. Porras, and M. S. Torn, “The whole-soil carbon flux in response to warming.” Science  (2017). [DOI: 10.1126/science.aal1319] (Reference link)

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Biosequestration
  • Research Area: Climate and Earth System Modeling
  • Mission Science: Climate

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


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