Six feet under, a new approach to global warming

Public Release: 

WSU researcher sees how deep soil can hold much of the Earth’s carbon

Washington State University

VANCOUVER, Wash. -A Washington State University researcher has found that one-fourth of the carbon held by soil is bound to minerals as far as six feet below the surface. The discovery opens a new possibility for dealing with the element as it continues to warm the Earth’s atmosphere.

One hitch: Most of that carbon is concentrated deep beneath the world’s wet forests, and they won’t sequester as much as global temperatures continue to rise.

Marc Kramer, an associate professor of environmental chemistry at WSU Vancouver, drew on new data from soils around the world to describe how water dissolves organic carbon and takes it deep into the soil, where it is physically and chemically bound to minerals. Kramer and Oliver Chadwick, a soil scientist at the University of California Santa Barbara, estimate that this pathway is retaining about 600 billion metric tons, or gigatons, of carbon. That’s more than twice the carbon added to the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Scientists still need to find a way to take advantage of this finding and move some of the atmosphere’s extra carbon underground, but Kramer says the soils can easily retain more. For starters, a new understanding of the pathway is “a major breakthrough” in our understanding of how carbon goes underground and stays there, he said.

“We know less about the soils on Earth than we do about the surface of Mars,” said Kramer, whose work appears in the journal Nature Climate Change. “Before we can start thinking about storing carbon in the ground, we need to actually understand how it gets there and how likely it is to stick around. This finding highlights a major breakthrough in our understanding.”

The study is the first global-scale evaluation of the role soil plays in dissolved organic carbon and the minerals that help store it. Kramer analyzed soils and climate data from the Americas, New Caledonia, Indonesia and Europe, and drew from more than 65 sites sampled to a depth of six feet from the National Science Foundation-funded National Ecological Observatory Network.

“These data show what kind of big science you can do when you have a national ecological observatory,” Kramer said. For one thing, they let the researchers construct a global-scale map for this pathway of soil carbon accumulation.

Comparing different ecosystems, Kramer saw that moist environments sequestered far more carbon than dry ones. In desert climates, where rain is scarce and water easily evaporates, reactive minerals retain less than 6 percent of the soil’s organic carbon. Dry forests are not much better. But wet forests can have as much as half their total carbon bound up by reactive minerals.

Wet forests tend to be more productive, with thick layers of organic matter from which water will leach carbon and transport it to minerals as much as six feet below the surface.

“This is one of the most persistent mechanisms that we know of for how carbon accumulates,” Kramer said.

But while climate change is unlikely to directly affect the deep mineral-bound carbon, it can influence the pathway by which the carbon is buried. That is because the delivery system depends on water to leach carbon from roots, fallen leaves and other organic matter near the surface and carry it deep into the soil, where it will attach to iron- and aluminum-rich minerals eager to form strong bonds.

If temperatures near the surface warm, there can be less water moving through soils even if rainfall amounts stay the same or increase. More of the water that does fall can be lost to evaporation and plant respiration, making less water available to move carbon for long-term storage.

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37 thoughts on “Six feet under, a new approach to global warming

    • Yes EJ Zuiderwijk, this NON Fact pervades all the climate science these days. It seems to be a required NON Fact to be inserted to enable publication. Pity you stopped reading, it is an interesting article; but I suspect it will generate rich grant pickings in the sequestering industry.

        • What next? Will the alarmists want to close down all crematoriums?. Poor people can’t afford to bury their dead 6 FEET UNDER. Cemetery space and caskets are too costly. Will we have greenie protests outside of every cemetery?

          • Maybe the greenies will want the dead to be dissolved in barrels of acid? Mexican drug lords have perfected this practice. Maybe a new source of revenue for them; now that marijuana is legal in more and more places.

    • Yep. Couldn’t get past that either. I’m sure there is information in here of use, and you know, it may simply be another one of those papers where the author held his nose while making the necessary reference to the green religion in order to get published.

      I try to ignore the nonsense and dredge through the remains for value, but every now and again, my disgust at it gets the better of me…

    • “The discovery opens a new possibility for dealing with the element as it continues to warm the Earth’s atmosphere.”

      Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, perhaps?

    • E J Zuiderwijk: Why you should care about how carbon is bound to the soil, especially if you regard CO2 as not producing general warming.

      Stories like this could be filed under “OMG, as the atmosphere warms, the soil will warm, releasing its sequestered carbon as CO2, further warming the atmosphere, and we are all going to die!”

      Were warming temperatures to stimulate CO2 emissions from soils, and is arguably warming (yeah, yeah, Urban Heat Island, The Pause, but bear with me), the warming that is already occurring should already be driving CO2 out of the soil reservoir. If this is the case, accounting for the Keeling Curve of the observed inexorable increase in atmospheric CO2 since about the mid 20th century must mean that something such as growth of living plants — the “greening” that has been talked about on this fine Web site — must be counteracting this additional CO2 source. In other words, if there is a strong positive feedback of thermally stimulated emission of CO2, this must be countered by a strong negative feedback of increase CO2 concentrations stimulating plant growth, otherwise the atmospheric CO2 would be yet higher than we see it?

      And if you incorporate this into a Carbon Cycle model, the stronger negative feedback of CO2 from “greening” means that humans cannot be contributing all of the observed increase in atmospheric CO2 because the thermally stimulated emission in contributing a strong portion of the observed increase. Holy thermally stimulated CO2, Batman, if soil emissions are a large portion of the increase in atmospheric CO2, humans cannot be (directly) blamed for nearly all the increase.

      Also, if a large portion of the atmospheric increase in CO2 is from already occurring thermally stimulated emission, and much of the 20th century warming took place before the 1950s when industrial CO2 emission really kicked in, this supplies indirect evidence that CO2 follows warming rather than the other way around.

      Pieter Tans, the Carbon Cycle maven/guru at NOAA, continues to claim that almost all the increase in atmospheric CO2 is human-caused. To support this, he goes on to claim that the thermally stimulated emission of CO2, causing large year-to-year fluctuations in atmospheric CO2 “net emissions” (Murry Salby’s claimed Smoking Gun), occur only at short time scales as they are attributable to a shallow, small reservoir in the leaf litter of tropical forests.

      So, what is it? Is the thermally stimulated emission from a small, shallow tropical forest-floor reservoir, meaning humans are to blame for the big increase in atmospheric CO2, but thermal emission of CO2 from the deep soil is not going to happen anytime soon? Or is Pieter Tans wrong, thermal emission takes place from a larger, deeper reservoir, which means humans are not to blame for all or perhaps even for most of the CO2 increase in the atmosphere?

    • Zuiderwijk, none of my business – but the correct citation is

      “The discovery opens a new possibility for dealing with the element as it continues to warm the Earth’s atmosphere.”

  1. Big surprise, is this why the planet is Greening ?

    So what is the problem, nature usually fixes what we puny humans cannot seem to understand.

    MJE

  2. Excerpt from the article:
    “Scientists still need to find a way to take advantage of this finding and move some of the atmosphere’s extra carbon underground”

    This statement is false – atmospheric CO2 is not too high, it is too low for the continuation of carbon-based life on Earth. More atmospheric CO2 is beneficial to humanity and the environment.

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/07/02/opening-up-the-climate-policy-envelope/#comment-2394869

    Atmospheric CO2 is inexorably declining as it is being sequestered in carbonate rocks. In the last Continental Last Ice Age, atmospheric CO2 declined to about 180 ppm – in the next Ice Age it could drop lower, even closer to the extinction point of C3 plants at about 150-160 ppm. ”

    Virtually ALL food plants use the C3 photosynthetic pathway, so a drop of atmospheric CO2 to 150-160 ppm will be an extinction event for ~all advanced terrestrial life on Earth.

    A few food plants (less than 1%) use the C4 photosynthetic pathway, including corn and sugar cane – but I doubt terrestrial life could survive for long on Sugar Frosted Flakes – notwithstanding the persistent rumour that “They’re Great!”

    There are also CAM photosynthetic pathway plants, so we can look forward to having pineapple with our Sugar Frosted Flakes.

    • ALLAN

      I think it entirely logical that the slight risk, allegedly attributed to increased atmospheric CO2, be infinitely preferable than that risked by flirting with certain extinction the planet is only ~250 ppm away from.

      We are 100% certain that life for mankind was productive during the Minoan, Roman and Medieval warm periods, irrespective of whether they were global or not. Frankly I don’t see there can be any argument about at least one of these three events being global when the concept of the last ice age and the mini ice age are universally accepted as global.

      If atmospheric CO2 is the cause of warming (a concept as yet unproven by empirical studies) then perhaps humankind can avert another ice age disaster, but I seriously doubt either proposition is supportable.

      The best mankind can do is forge ahead with technology and development, and lift the poverty stricken out of their predicament at which point (currently $5,000 annual income) according to Jordan B. Peterson, people start caring about the environment.

      As it stands, perceptibly to this layman, mankind is regressing with restrictions on developing nations employing fossil fuel derived energy by strangling international finance to accomplish same.

      Meanwhile, the Chinese are doing just what the Western world should be doing, providing finance and facilities to build coal fired power stations. While the West wrings it’s little handsies about the horrors of increased atmospheric CO2 it will be overtaken rather quickly be China in terms of financial might and social development.

      China is the new Colonial superpower, a concept abandoned by the West because we handled it badly in our early experiments with it. Zimbabwe was considered the breadbasket of Africa with advanced, civilised, Colonial style management until the Marxist Mugabe decimated the country.

      China is operating a hybrid communist/Capitalist political system, to my knowledge hitherto not considered as viable, and whilst their human rights record is still appalling, so was the West’s in the early days of Colonialism, The UK tamed our excesses and still operates it’s Colonies under the banner ‘The Commonwealth’.

      If nothing else, the Chinese system is doing just what mankind requires; eradicating poverty and bringing prosperity. There are an enormous number of millionaires in China compared to the West, even allowing for population differences, and the single generation they have had to achieve that.

      When is the West going to wake up?!

      • Thank you HotScot and Thomas H – no disagreements here.

        When the West finally wakes up, there will be an enormous backlash against the Greens, who are not only sabotaging our economies but are causing enormous harm to the world’s poor through deliberate energy starvation – and their past crimes such as the war on DDT that also caused tens of millions of deaths, mostly children under 5 years of age.

        The Greens are the great killers of our age, rivalling the death tolls of the great killers of the 20th Century.

    • Thank you Allan MacRae!

      “atmosphere’s extra carbon ”

      Which Carbon Based Life Form has decided there’s ‘extra’ CO2?

      We know there would be no Carbon Based Life Forms without CO2. The cycle of Life depends on the extraction of Carbon from atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis/phytoplankton.

    • I find it interesting that they say that eventually all life on earth will be extinct because of lack of CO2

      “In about 600 million years from now, the level of carbon dioxide will fall below the level needed to sustain C3 carbon fixation photosynthesis used by trees.
      Some plants use the C4 carbon fixation method, allowing them to persist at carbon dioxide concentrations as low as 10 parts per million.
      However, the long-term trend is for plant life to die off altogether. The extinction of plants will be the demise of almost all animal life, since plants are the base of the food chain on Earth.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_of_Earth

      • Thank you Jeff for the reference.

        I first wrote about CO2 starvation circa 2012 or earlier.

        http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/08/30/north-american-energy-independence-by-2020/#comment-1070931

        [excerpt]

        (Plant) Food for Thought:

        One reasonable scenario for the end of life on Earth is insufficient atmospheric CO2 to support photosynthesis, as CO2 is permanently sequestered in carbonate rocks, hydrocarbons, coals, etc.

        Since life on Earth could actually end due to CO2 starvation, should we be paying energy companies to burn fossil fuels to increase atmospheric CO2, instead of fining them due to the false belief that CO2 from fossil fuel combustion causes catastrophic global warming?

        Could T.S. Eliot have been thinking about CO2 starvation when he wrote:
        “This is the way the world ends
        Not with a bang but a whimper.”

        Regards, Allan 🙂

  3. So they say “One hitch: Most of that carbon is concentrated deep beneath the world’s wet forests, and they won’t sequester as much as global temperatures continue to rise.”
    This is not a hitch! If this planet would get up to the Medieval or Roman temperature highs then the planet would also be wetter as proxy records show. Thus their other complaint about needing more damp soil, “Comparing different ecosystems, Kramer saw that moist environments sequestered far more carbon than dry ones.” would be fulfilled.
    At the current rate of warming (at about 1°C per century) nature can take care of itself, no need to worry. 😀

    • Someone should direct the author to the nearest grassland environment.
      Grass lands sequester far more carbon in soil than wet forests. Forest soils are notorious for their thin layer of carboniferous soils, only at the surface, where leaf litter falls and breaks down, while prairie soils are rich and black with Carbon to depths of 20 feet, at times.
      The soils of tropical forests which are clear cut for agricultural purposes, very quickly become non- productive and turn to laeterite, due to their lack of Carbon, necessary for the symbiosis of soil life, with plant- loving minerals having also been leached away.

      • Re: The Freeman Dyson article which was referenced here a while back, in regards to soils and CO2 sequestration.. “Heretical Thoughts About Science and Society.”..Seems to piggyback on this theory..

  4. “Scientists still need to find a way to take advantage of this finding and move some of the atmosphere’s extra carbon underground”

    Noooooo, stop redefining science, why aren’t funding agencies stamping out this blatant overreach?

  5. Always fun when enviroscience “discovers” the carbon cycle. One can easily see where they were headed with this; that “climate change” (the fantasy manmade type) is perhaps disrupting the carbon cycle, meaning less and less CO2 gets absorbed. It’s just one more in a host of fabled, physically impossible positive feedbacks, not unlike the “methane scare”, wherein the methane in the Arctic trapped in permafrost would begin to be released, and in spiral fashion set off a “methane bomb”, dooming the planet.

  6. I think General Rule #1 for geoengineering must be that it is easily reversible. Else, when man starts fooling with the atmosphere, billions will die.

    So Mr. Assoc. Professor, how can you easily and quickly release the CO2 you will bind with underground soil?

  7. Scientists all seem to talk up what they’re doing. “What we’ve discovered is AMAZING and for the first time ever in history we learn this thing that’s very relevant!” Kramer spews nonsense like “we know less about the soils on Earth than we do about the surface of Mars!” and he’ll be given a pass from the scientific community because they understand the public announcement game.

    But sheesh. That seems to be taking things a bit far.

    • Mars has dirt. Dirt is easy to understand.

      Earth has soil. Soil is alive with fungi, worms, and micro-organisms. Those in turn leave behind debris which can be critical to understanding soil.

      The discovery of glomalin was only in 1996.

      And if you don’t know glomalin, you don’t know soil.

      Glomalin is well worth taking a weekend to study.

  8. So near yet so far…………
    But as per, cause & effect are invisible, the guy is blinded by the Magical Thought Bubble that says everyone else is an evil emitter, belcher and spewer.

    My question to him would be, Where did that ‘6 ft buried’ carbon come from if not from The Surface?

    Simple common sense would then tell you that, as it came from plants which tend to grow ‘on the surface’ that there much (or should be) more of that stuff nearer the surface than is buried.
    Its a ‘gradient thing’

    So. Where is it?
    We know its not near the surface, we saw a (less than) lovely picture of a Texas soya-bean field here at WT just yesterday – bright red soil and not a hint of *any* carbon at all.
    (Doncha wonder what that new Martian thing is gonna dig up from 5 metres down?)

    In reply to ‘Gamecock’ elsewhere in this thread, it is very very easy to dig the buried carbon back up.
    All you need is a tractor, a plough or other cultivator and optionally, lashings of nitrogenous fertiliser.
    Paddy fielding is just a slight variation on that theme.

    Hello hello… maybe the carbon was ‘there all the time’
    Isn’t it a bizarre coincidence that the Industrial Revoulution coincided with an Agricultural Revolution with a Population Explosion
    To cut it short, what were all those industrial workers and the consumers of their product eating and where did it come from.
    Soya bean fields in Texas maybe, wheat fields elsewhere, corn fields in the sugar beet belt perhaps.

    Here’s an interesting one:
    https://krex.k-state.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2097/1226/Bremer%26Ham2002.pdf

    3 things I take away from it, ymmv, but I saw:
    1. the Infra red photo of the grazed field vs the un-grazed part of the same field
    Remind you of anywhere?

    2. They set up some CO2 traps and, to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, I got an annual figure of 25 tonnes per acre per year of CO2 release.
    Run that over the world’s farmland – kinda makes ’emissions’ look a bit puny dunnit?

    3. As I’ve said many many times here, let Ma Nature do your temperature averaging – put your thermometer under ground – and that’s what they did here.
    Their result was that the average temperature of the top 3 metres of the soil was over 3 deg C warmer than the average air temperature.
    If that alone doesn’t kick the crazy notion of a GHGE into touch, wtf does?
    How does a cold air warm an even warmer soil beneath it?
    Do bear in mind how Boltzmann saw this coming and tried to head it off when he categorically stated that cold objects DO NOT radiate energy into warmer ones.

    As we all know from bath & shower time, how cotton towels are so much more useful than polyester ones for soaking up water.
    So it is with organic matter in the soil – same stuff really = cellulose mostly
    Hence, if the soil organics are floated off into the big wide atmosphere, so does any water it retained.
    And so, back in the bathroom – why you are not gonna use a a hot air blower (hairdryer perhaps) to dry yourself – for the very simple reason it will make you feel and be ‘cold’

    And there IS Climate Change.
    Atmospheric carbonoxide is a symptom, not The Cause.

    How many people actually do know that but are basically ‘wimps’
    Because the consequences are absolutely mind blowing and utterly horrific. Makes Ehrlich’s prediction look like a Teddy Bears Picnic.
    What causes wimpyness you wonder – lack of self confidence maybe?
    OK. What causes THAT?
    Ask your doctor, ask about Prozac, ask about alcohol, cannabis, insomnia remedies and ‘power-naps’
    He or she will be a dependant user of any multiple of them.
    Yeah?
    The consumption of that sort of food is causing the wimpishness.

    Neat innit, a truly epic positive feedback system and, in its awesome power of ultimate destruction, beautiful.

    Don’t mess with Ma Nature – treat that dirt with Respect.
    Too late for Texas (and California) though

    • “It is very very easy to dig the buried carbon back up.”

      That gets it to the surface. It doesn’t unbind it.

  9. “We know less about the soils on Earth than we do about the surface of Mars,” said Kramer, whose work appears in the journal Nature Climate Change.”

    Stopped reading right there.
    Lurid sensationalist statements make anything else Kramer and his cohorts state, highly questionable; as they have already demonstrated a willingness to invent fantasy to convey their message.

  10. I wish I could have a few tons of carbon (in the form of fall leaves) delivered to my garden instead of (very sad) land filling them, where they serve no purpose at all. It is the fiber and carbon in the first few meters below the surface that created the great plans bread basket. Carbon is a resource, not a problem!

    • “plains” ?
      “It is the fiber and carbon in the first few meters below the surface that created the great plans (“plains” ?) bread basket.

  11. Looks like there’s an implicit assumption that more water means more carbon can be carried into the deep soil to be mineralized. I don’t see any indication that any of the steps along the way have been looked at to see how they really behave.

  12. Roots exude carbon in organic acids, flavenoids, enzymes, mucilage, vitamins, amino acids & “sugars”. These are put out in different amounts depending on, among other things, the kind of soil plant is growing in, even if comparing the same kind of plant.

    Different kinds of soil, for their part, will have different amounts of Aluminum & Silica hydroxyls plus different amounts of Iron hyydroxides. In a simplified dynamic toot delivered organic acids can get Aluminum, Silica & Iron free to chelate with root exuded carbon. Then too an additional parameter is that even for the same kind of soil, that soil’s relative fertility impacts the amount of carbon complexed with Aluminum,Silica &/or Iron.

    Where the calculation estimating the amount of carbon complexed in soil gets tricky is that depending on the kind of plant & the condition of the soil that plant grew/grows in an estimate of anywhere from 5 to 21 % of photosynthesis assimilated carbon in a plant is exuded by it’s roots. For example, depending on soil particulars anywhere from 0.5 to 10% of the carbon assimilated photosynthetically by maize is exuded by it’s roots.

    Original Post did not discover this natural feature. It seems O.P. researchers have managed to quantify it more. As for their cited depth feature & also their observation of relationship(s) to soil moisture dynamics I propose their depth layer is a function of the degree of leaching downward. In other words the carbon discussed isn’t somehow diffusing down several feet & then in a obscure way deep under the surface that carbon is there getting bound up to Aluminum & Iron.

    • Gringo, I’m curious why in you list of soil carbon constituents you left off glomalin proteins.

      Glomalin was unknown in 1995, but is now known to be critical to soil health and a major destination of the carbon exudes from roots you mention is glomalin protein formation by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.

  13. The whole first sentence is disambiguate:

    “VANCOUVER, Wash. -A Washington State University researcher has found that one-fourth of the carbon held by soil is bound to minerals as far as six feet below the surface. The discovery opens a new possibility for dealing with the element as it continues to warm the Earth’s atmosphere.”
    __________________________________________________

    The element carbon … held by soil is bound to minerals … as it coninues to warm the Earth’s atmosphere.
    __________________________________________________

    believe it or not.

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