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Quantifying global soil carbon losses in response to warming.

Nature

Springer Nature America, Inc

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      Abstract

      The majority of the Earth's terrestrial carbon is stored in the soil. If anthropogenic warming stimulates the loss of this carbon to the atmosphere, it could drive further planetary warming. Despite evidence that warming enhances carbon fluxes to and from the soil, the net global balance between these responses remains uncertain. Here we present a comprehensive analysis of warming-induced changes in soil carbon stocks by assembling data from 49 field experiments located across North America, Europe and Asia. We find that the effects of warming are contingent on the size of the initial soil carbon stock, with considerable losses occurring in high-latitude areas. By extrapolating this empirical relationship to the global scale, we provide estimates of soil carbon sensitivity to warming that may help to constrain Earth system model projections. Our empirical relationship suggests that global soil carbon stocks in the upper soil horizons will fall by 30 ± 30 petagrams of carbon to 203 ± 161 petagrams of carbon under one degree of warming, depending on the rate at which the effects of warming are realized. Under the conservative assumption that the response of soil carbon to warming occurs within a year, a business-as-usual climate scenario would drive the loss of 55 ± 50 petagrams of carbon from the upper soil horizons by 2050. This value is around 12-17 per cent of the expected anthropogenic emissions over this period. Despite the considerable uncertainty in our estimates, the direction of the global soil carbon response is consistent across all scenarios. This provides strong empirical support for the idea that rising temperatures will stimulate the net loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere, driving a positive land carbon-climate feedback that could accelerate climate change.

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      Temperature sensitivity of soil carbon decomposition and feedbacks to climate change.

      Significantly more carbon is stored in the world's soils--including peatlands, wetlands and permafrost--than is present in the atmosphere. Disagreement exists, however, regarding the effects of climate change on global soil carbon stocks. If carbon stored belowground is transferred to the atmosphere by a warming-induced acceleration of its decomposition, a positive feedback to climate change would occur. Conversely, if increases of plant-derived carbon inputs to soils exceed increases in decomposition, the feedback would be negative. Despite much research, a consensus has not yet emerged on the temperature sensitivity of soil carbon decomposition. Unravelling the feedback effect is particularly difficult, because the diverse soil organic compounds exhibit a wide range of kinetic properties, which determine the intrinsic temperature sensitivity of their decomposition. Moreover, several environmental constraints obscure the intrinsic temperature sensitivity of substrate decomposition, causing lower observed 'apparent' temperature sensitivity, and these constraints may, themselves, be sensitive to climate.
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        THE VERTICAL DISTRIBUTION OF SOIL ORGANIC CARBON AND ITS RELATION TO CLIMATE AND VEGETATION

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          RCP 8.5—A scenario of comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions

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            Author and article information

            Journal
            10.1038/nature20150
            27905442

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