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PI-Submitted Research Highlights for
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program

Globally Rising Soil Heterotrophic Respiration over Recent Decades

Ben Bond-Lamberty

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1 August 2018

A mutidecadal synthesis shows that soil microbes are respiring soil carbon at faster rates worldwide.

The Science  
The results of this new study in Nature show that soil microbes respire faster than photosynthesis rises in response to climate change, presumably leading to soil-carbon losses in many regions.

The Impact
There is perhaps no more pressing question in all of terrestrial biogeochemistry than the degree to which soils will respond to ongoing climate change—specifically, the degree to which they may lose some of their enormous carbon pools to the atmosphere, exerting a feedback effect on the climate. Whether such losses are occurring, or will in the future, has significant consequences for understanding of how Earth’s ecosystems are changing.

Summary
Global soils store twice as much carbon as Earth’s atmosphere. This carbon may be destabilized by ongoing climate change, though to what degree remains uncertain. If soil-carbon losses do occur, the dominant pathway will be via heterotrophic soil respiration (RH), the soil-to-atmosphere flow of carbon dioxide produced by microbes.

This study collects thousands of observations over 25 years to show that RH is rising at a faster rate than either total soil respiration (the total soil-to-atmosphere carbon flux) or plant photosynthesis (as measured by satellites or by instruments on the ground, or as simulated in models). Collectively, this provides strong evidence that global RH is responding to climate change, and suggests that losses of soil carbon to the atmosphere may be occurring at large scales. 

These results open new avenues of research—integrating remote sensing and observational data, for example, or developing new manipulative experiments of ecosystems. These results also offer new opportunities for testing Earth system models.

Contacts
BER Program Manager
Daniel Stover
U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research
Climate and Environmental Sciences Division (SC-23.1)
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
daniel.stover@science.doe.gov

Principal Investigator
Ben Bond-Lamberty
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Richland, WA 99354
bondlamberty@pnnl.gov

Funding
This research was supported by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program of the Office Biological and Environmental Research, within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. C.M.G. received additional support from the National Science Foundation Division of Environmental Biology.

Publications
Bond-Lamberty, B., et al. “Globally rising soil heterotrophic respiration over recent decades.” Nature 560, 80–83 (2018). [DOI:10.1038/s41586-018-0358-x]

Related Links
PNNL news release

This research was supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research as part of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences Program. C.M.G. received additional support from the National Science Foundation Division of Environmental Biology. 

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