One size does not fit all when exploring how carbon in soil affects the climate

Scientists from Stanford University are opening a window into soil organic carbon, a critical component of the global carbon cycle and climate change.

“We have to know what kind of carbon is in soil in order to understand where the carbon comes from and where it will go,” said Hsiao-Tieh Hsu, a PhD student in chemistry at Stanford University and a member of a Kate Maher’s research group.

The natural fluxes of soil organic carbon, the exchange of carbon moving from vegetation to the soil and recycled by microorganisms before being stabilized in the soil or returned to the atmosphere, is 10 to 20 times higher than human emissions. Even the smallest change in the flux of soil organic carbon would have a huge impact on the climate.

Soil organic carbon occurs naturally and is part of the carbon cycle. Through photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As plants and their roots decompose, they deposit organic carbon in the soil. Microorganisms, decomposing animals, animal feces and minerals also contribute to the organic carbon in the soil. In turn, plants and microorganisms “eat” that carbon, which is an essential nutrient.

All of this results in different “flavours” or compounds within the soil, say Hsu and Maher, who is also a faculty member of the Stanford Center for Carbon Storage.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Members of the research team at the East River, Colorado, field site (left to right): Hsiao-Tieh Hsu; Grace Rainaldi, Stanford undergraduate; Corey Lawrence, research geologist at United States Geological Survey; Kate Maher; Matthew Winnick, Stanford postdoctoral fellow.
Credit: Kate Maher.