New soil models may ease atmospheric CO2, climate change

July 28, 2020

ITHACA, N.Y. - To remove carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere in an effort to slow climate change, scientists must get their hands dirty and peek underground.

In an article published July 27 in Nature Geoscience, Cornell University's Johannes Lehmann and others wrote that scientists should develop new models that more accurately reflect the carbon-storage processes beneath our feet, in order to effectively draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Carbon's journey into the soil is akin to a busy New York City rush hour. "Everything in the soil is bustling and changing all the time on a daily or hourly basis," said Lehmann, professor of soil biogeochemistry and the lead author on the piece.

"Microorganisms are on the street, but carbon quickly disappears around the corner or hides in nooks and crannies," he said. "Microorganisms in the soils that consume carbon can never be sure what tomorrow looks like."

Think of it this way: Sometimes soil microorganisms see a lot of carbon but still cannot devour it.

Lehmann and an international, interdisciplinary group of scientists propose the creation of new soil carbon-persistence models through the lens of "functional complexity" - the interplay between time and space in soil carbon's changing molecular structure.

Functional complexity drives carbon sequestration, and scientists must know specifically how carbon stays in the ground, according to Lehmann.

"Even if soil microorganisms have a full smorgasbord in front of them, they don't know what to eat if there is very little of each kind of carbon," said Lehmann, a fellow at Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. "Although there is plenty of carbon, microorganisms starve, especially if they have to adjust to ever-changing conditions in a crazy maze."

With new models, scientists believe they can find out exactly how sequestration works. It could then be properly reflected in the next assessment of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - which likely will address drawing down atmospheric carbon.

Lehmann said that with modeling techniques gleaned from the field of engineering, for example, soil scientists can find better management methods to reduce atmospheric carbon.

"Collaboration in a stellar group of thinkers from diverse disciplines was key for us to come up with a new view on this old conundrum," he said. "We seem to be building climate models based on an erroneous understanding of why organic carbon stays in soil and how microbes are eating it. We need a new thinking to incorporate the best models for IPCC and other climate prediction efforts."
-end-
Along with Cornell, the other institutions on this project are: Technical University Munich, Germany, which organized a workshop on this topic; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts; University of Vienna, Austria; Oregon State University; Stanford University; Stockholm University, Sweden; Sorbonne Université, Paris; Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Germany; the University of California, Santa Barbara; Berkeley Lab, California; the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado; and the University of Colorado.

Support for this work was provided by the German Excellence Initiative and the European Union Seventh Framework Programme; the Technical University Munich and the Hans-Fischer-Senior Program; the U.S. Department of Energy; and the European Research Council under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

Cornell University

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.