The study, from University of New Hampshire professor Serita Frey and co-authors from the University of California-Davis and the Marine Biological Laboratory, sheds new light on how soil microorganisms respond to temperature and could improve predictions of how climate warming will affect the carbon dioxide flux from soils.
The activities of soil microorganisms release 10 times the carbon dioxide that human activities do on a yearly basis. Historically, this release of carbon dioxide has been kept in check by plants' uptake of the gas from the atmosphere. However, human activities are potentially upsetting this balance.
"As you increase temperature, you decrease the efficiency – soil microorganisms release more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – but only for the more complex food sources," Frey explains. "You could infer that as the soil warms, more carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate problem."That effect diminishes, however, in the second scenario, in which soils were warmed to 5 degrees Celsius above the ambient temperature for 18 years. "When the soil was heated to simulate climate warming, we saw a change in the community to be more efficient in the longer term," Frey says, lessening the amount of carbon dioxide the soils release into the atmosphere and, in turn, their impact on the climate. "The positive feedback response may not be as strong as we originally predicted."
The researchers hypothesize that long-term warming may change the community of soil microorganisms so that it becomes more efficient. Organism adaptation, change in the species that comprise the soils, and/or changes in the availability of various nutrients could result in this increased efficiency.
This study was based on work done at the Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in Petersham, Mass., where Frey and Melillo have been warming two sites – one 9 meters square, the other 36 meters square -- with underground cables for two versus 18 years. "It's like having a heating blanket under the forest floor," Frey says, "allowing us to examine how this particular environmental change—long-term soil warming—is altering how the soil functions."
The article, "The Temperature Response of Soil Microbial Efficiency and its Feedback to Climate," is published in the advanced online publication of Nature Climate Change on Jan. 20, 2013. To access the abstract or full text (subscribers only) of the article after the embargo lifts, use the digital object identifier (DOI) number 10.1038/NCLIMATE1796 at this link: http://dx.doi.org/.
This work was supported by an NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award, the NSF Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Program, a DOE National Institute for Climatic Change Research (NICCR) grant, and a Harvard Forest Bullard Fellowship to Frey.Photographs available to download:
Credit: Perry Smith, UNH Photographic Serviceshttp://www.unh.edu/news/releases/2013/jan/forestplot.jpg
Credit: Alix Contosa, postdoctoral researcher at UNHhttp://www.unh.edu/news/releases/2013/jan/freyinfield.jpg
Credit: Brian Godbois, research assistant at UNHhttp://www.unh.edu/news/releases/2013/jan/freysoil.jpg
The University of New Hampshire, founded in 1866, is a world-class public research university with the feel of a New England liberal arts college. A land, sea, and space-grant university, UNH is the state's flagship public institution, enrolling 12,200 undergraduate and 2,300 graduate students.
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