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article imageGlobal Warming Changing Organic Matter in Soil

By Bob Ewing     Nov 24, 2008 in Environment
Scientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough have published research findings that show global warming actually changes the molecular structure of organic matter in soil.
Scientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough have published their research findings in the journal, Nature Geoscience. The findings show global warming actually changes the molecular structure of organic matter in soil.
"Soil contains more than twice the amount of carbon than does the atmosphere, yet, until now, scientists haven't examined this significant carbon pool closely," said Professor Myrna Simpson of environmental chemistry at UTSC, principal investigator of the study.
"Through our research, we've sought to determine what soils are made up of at the molecular level and whether this composition will change in a warmer world."
The organic matter in soil is what makes it fertile and able to support plant life - both of which are especially important for agriculture. Organic matter retains water in the soil and prevents erosion. Natural processes of decomposition of soil organic matter provide plants and microbes with the energy source and water they need to grow and carbon is released into the atmosphere as a by-product of this process.
It is anticipated that warming temperatures will speed up this process, which will increase the amount of CO2 that is transferred to the atmosphere.
"From the perspective of agriculture, we can't afford to lose carbon from the soil because it will change soil fertility and enhance erosion" Simpson said.
"Alternatively, consider all the carbon locked up in permafrost in the Arctic. We also need to understand what will happen to the stored carbon when microbes become more active under warmer temperatures."
Before Simpson conducted his research, scientists didn't know much about soil's molecular composition. Part of the reason is , from a chemical perspective, soil is difficult to analyse due to its many components, including bacteria, fungi and an array of fresh, partially degraded or old plant material.
Simpson's team, which includes Professors Dudley Williams and Andre Simpson as research collaborators, is uniquely positioned to address this new frontier. The team uses a NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) facility - the only NMR facility in Canada specifically dedicated to environmental research - to gain a detailed view of soil's molecular structure and reactivity.
The team used an outdoor field experiment in the valley behind the UTSC campus to ensure natural ecosystem processes were preserved. Electrodes warmed the test soil between three and six degrees through winter and summer seasons, over a 14-month period. Throughout the test period, the team analysed the molecular composition of soil samples.
More about Global warming, Soil, Atmosphere
 
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