Athens, Ga. Current models of global climate change predict warmer temperatures will increase the rate that bacteria and other microbes decompose soil organic matter, a scenario that pumps even more heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere. But a new study led by a University of Georgia researcher shows that while the rate of decomposition increases for a brief period in response to warmer temperatures, elevated levels of decomposition don't persist.
"There is about two and a half times more carbon in the soil than there is in the atmosphere, and the concern right now is that a lot of that carbon is going to end up in the atmosphere," said lead author Mark Bradford, assistant professor in the UGA Odum School of Ecology. "What our finding suggests is that a positive feedback between warming and a loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere is likely to occur but will be less than currently predicted."
Bradford, whose results appear in the early online edition of the journal Ecology Letters, said the finding helps resolve a long-standing debate about how unseen soil microbes respond to and influence global climate change. Other scientists have noted that the respiration of soil microbes returns to normal after a number of years under heated conditions, but offered competing explanations. Some argued that the microbes consumed so much of the available food under heated conditions that future levels of decomposition were reduced because of food scarcity. Others argued that soil microbes adapted to the changed environment and reduced their respiration accordingly.
Bradford and his team, which included researchers from the University of New Hampshire, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Duke University and Colorado State University, found evidence to support both hypotheses and revealed a third, previously unaccounted for explanation: The abundance of soil microbes decreased under warm conditions.
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University of Georgia