By Kate Ryan, GOOD.is
When it comes to measuring carbon dioxide emissions, most of us look to the sky to gauge the escalation of global warming. However, according to a new study published in Nature late last week, we should be looking at the ground beneath our feet. Essentially, terrestrial soil acts as a great carbon container—second only to the ocean’s carbon-trapping abilities. As global temperatures increase and cause organic microbes to break down, what was once an excellent carbon absorber could eventually become its greatest source. This is particularly true in the Arctic, where rising temperatures are currently melting the permafrost at an alarming rate.
After compiling 49 studies from around the world that focus on this topic, climate scientists have come to the conclusion that this massive reversal could unleash 55 trillion kilograms of carbon and methane by 2050. The study’s lead researcher, Tom Crowther, equates this amount to adding another United States to the planet. Only in this case, the greenhouse gases won’t be spewing just from cars, planes, and factories, but from the earth itself. Crowther said in a statement that this unprecedented increase would be “about 17 percent more than the projected emissions due to human-related activities during that period.” Releasing more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere will only trigger an increase in global temperatures, which in turn will trigger terrestrial soils to release more gasses, creating that catastrophic snowball effect we’ve all feared.
At this moment, we still have the unique ability to prevent the worst possible outcome. Incorporating these soil findings into the larger climate change picture should only make the need to act all the more urgent. With climate change denier Donald Trump heading to the White House and threatening to pull out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, the responsibility will land on everyday citizens to demand government accountability. As Crowther states, “Now that this long-standing scientific query has been answered at last, we should adjust international climate models accordingly, and do this as quickly as possible. The same goes for policy.”