New Study Maps Out the Global Pattern of Soil-based Carbon Storage

More carbon is stored in the Earth’s soil than can be found in vegetation and the atmosphere put together.  How much carbon is stored in soil varies locally depending on the diversity of soil organisms.  Researchers from the Crowther Lab recently published a study in Science which reviewed existing research on soil communities, the impact of those communities on soil carbon storage, and the affects of climate change on those patterns.  From this scholarly review,  researchers sought to identify unifying patterns in global soil biodiversity and biogeochemistry and the impact of the communities on soil carbon storage and cycling.

The study highlights the variability of carbon storage between biomes.  Tropical climates experience a higher metabolic activity among soil organisms, leading to less carbon storage in those climates.  High latitude soils, with colder climates, store considerably higher amounts of carbon in the soil due to lower metabolic activity.  A recently published paper highlighted the concern that as higher latitudes experience persistent periods of higher than average temperatures, the subsequent speeding up of metabolic activity in these cold communities will lead to more carbon storage being released from the soil into the atmosphere.


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Maps ‘A’ and ‘B’ show the global patterns of soil carbon storage and heterotrophic respiration. Graph shows ‘C’ latitudinal patterns of terrestrial carbon stocks, both aboveground plant biomass 906 (green) and soil carbon stocks (brown). Graph ‘D’ shows the same latitudinal trend in soil microbial biomass. Figure: Crowther et al., 2019.

Maps ‘A’ and ‘B’ show the global patterns of soil carbon storage and heterotrophic respiration. Graph shows ‘C’ latitudinal patterns of terrestrial carbon stocks, both aboveground plant biomass
906 (green) and soil carbon stocks (brown). Graph ‘D’ shows the same latitudinal trend in soil microbial biomass. Figure: Crowther et al., 2019.

This understanding of the relationship between soil communities, climate, and carbon storage is an important aspect in crafting approaches to mitigate climate change.  Lead author, Tom Crowther, notes “As the largest terrestrial store of both biodiversity and carbon, the effective management of soil at a global scale is among our most powerful weapons in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. Just as differences between forests and grasslands can improve our understanding of ecosystems, major differences in soil organisms can drive massive differences in carbon storage across the globe. It is crucial that we expand our knowledge of below-ground soil communities in order to understand and address climate change.”

Based on the results of this paper, the Crowther Lab is calling for:

  1. Urgent funding by governments around the world to fill existing gaps in knowledge of soil communities and their dynamics under future climate change.
  2. More focus among the scientific community on general global patterns of soil health, rather than localised analyses.
  3. Support for the agricultural sector in their efforts to promote soil health, as holistic management of soils can drastically enhance carbon storage and biodiversity.

The paper

Crowther, T. W., van den Hoogen, J., Wan, J., Mayes, M. A., Keiser, A. D., Mo, L., … Maynard, D. S. (2019). The global soil community and its influence on biogeochemistry. Science, 365(6455), eaav0550. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aav0550

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