Plants and Soils Could Intensify Climate Change

Scientists from the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the University of California, Berkley have demonstrated that plants and soils could release large amounts of carbon dioxide as global climate warms.

The research team used a computer model of Earth's land surface to examine how carbon storage might react to a warmer planet with higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. The experimental design helps quantify the possible range in future terrestrial carbon storage.

"We have been counting on plants and soils to soak up and store much of the carbon we're releasing when we burn fossil fuels," Paul Higgins, a study co-author and associate director of the AMS Policy Program, said. "However, our results suggest the opposite possibility. Plants and soils could react to warming by releasing additional carbon dioxide, increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and leading to even more climate warming."

The results of the study indicated that the potential range of outcomes includes the possibility that plant and soil responses to human-caused warming could trigger a large additional release of carbon. If that outcome is realized, a given level of human emissions could result in much larger climate changes than scientists currently anticipate. It would also mean that greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could be required to ensure carbon dioxide concentrations remain at what might be considered safe levels for the climate system.

These findings could pose additional challenges for climate change risk management. Recognizing such challenges will afford decision makers a greater chance of managing the risks of climate change more effectively.

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