Climate warming may not drive net losses of soil carbon from tropical forests

23 July 2014

The planet's soil releases about 60 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, which is far more than that released by burning fossil fuels. This happens through a process called soil respiration. This enormous release of carbon is balanced by carbon coming into the soil system from falling leaves and other plant matter, as well as by the underground activities of plant roots.

Short-term warming studies have documented that rising temperatures increase the rate of soil respiration. As a result, scientists have worried that global warming would accelerate the decomposition of carbon in the soil, and decrease the amount of carbon stored there. If true, this would release even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it would accelerate global warming.

New work by a team of scientists including Carnegie's Greg Asner and Christian Giardina of the U.S. Forest Service used an expansive whole-ecosystem study, the first of its kind, on tropical montane wet forests in Hawaii to sort through the many processes that control soil carbon stocks with changing temperature. Their work is published in Nature Climate Change.

The team revealed that higher temperatures increased the amount of leaf litter falling onto the soil, as well as other underground sources of carbon such as roots. Surprisingly, long-term warming had little effect on the overall storage of carbon in the tropical forest soil or the rate at which that carbon is processed into carbon dioxide.

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