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article imageOp-Ed: Dangerous — Warming soils to release billions of tons of carbon?

By Paul Wallis     Nov 6, 2020 in Environment
Sydney - University of Exeter research indicates that warmed-up soils could release up to 50- 230 billion tons of carbon. This is also a possible source of a lot of added heat as a result. That much carbon could deliver major temperature rises.
This important research is based on carbon turnover in the soil, which is called the carbon cycle. It’s one of the primary “recycling” processes on Earth. The science is well based on solid facts. So this news isn’t too good for the world.
Less cheerful is that the research didn’t include the melting permafrost (now making Siberia look positively tropical)which also includes lots of methane, another greenhouse gas.
This research, like most global warming research, also faces the thankless task of trying to be right with multiple added factors. Most global warming predictions over the last 20 years have proven to be basically right, but short of actual events.
The Arctic melt, for example, was predicted, but not so quickly or so drastically. The problem with the accuracy was the sheer volume of the melt, which was based on far more ice melting than expected.
This is one of the most basic mechanisms of the environment. If it goes haywire  life on Earth is in...
This is one of the most basic mechanisms of the environment. If it goes haywire, life on Earth is in big trouble.
Bvelevski / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The same could be the case with the soils, and there are other variables:
1. Some soils are relatively carbon-poor. They lack organic materials.
2. Some soils are very carbon-dense, like peat, heavy loams, etc.
3. Soils have different levels of carbon. Clay, for example, can absorb carbon but isn’t necessarily carbon rich.
4. The progressive release of carbon may accelerate further release of carbon over time in the same way ice melts accelerated further melts.
5. Water is a factor in carbon sequestration, breaking down carbon for sequestration, and also respiring carbon back into circulation.
Loss of soil carbon isn’t good for the environment
Carbon in the soil is a basic chemical dynamic supporting life on Earth. Drastic loss of carbon could shut down or sabotage soil chemistry. Microbiota, on which plant and animal life depend could be literally starved.
This might be “desertification by other means”, but it’s also unknown environmental science. A massive release of carbon into the atmosphere could also be toxic. Carbon microparticulates are the basics of toxic pollution. They’re so small they can get into the lungs. Animals and birds could also be on the wrong end of too much atmospheric carbon in much the same way.
Stopping the release of carbon isn’t the answer. The carbon cycle is gigantic, and the carbon is needed in the environment. The excess release, however, could be slowed by different types of land management, “cooling” the soil with top dressing as thermal insulation, etc. This would slow the release of carbon somewhat.
That’s not a fantastic proposition, nor can it easily catch billions of tons of carbon, but it’s better than nothing. A massive effort, of the type nobody has yet made to combat global warming, would be required. The only real solution is global cooling and that’s a very different, much-argued, ballgame.
…Which leaves us with a lot of science to do to figure out how to try to manage this big carbon issue. To say that 230 billion tons of carbon would be a gigantic environmental hit doesn’t do it justice. To say that it’s a problem that might solve humanity before humanity solves it would be closer to the truth.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about soil carbon release, University of Exeter, Carbon cycle, water cycle carbon cycle interaction, soil respiration
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