The scientists found that heating soil in Wisconsin and North Carolina woodlands by 10 and 20 degrees increased the release of carbon dioxide by up to eight times. They showed for the first time that most carbon in topsoil is vulnerable to this warming effect.
"We found that decades-old carbon in surface soils is released to the atmosphere faster when temperatures become warmer," said lead author Francesca Hopkins, a doctoral researcher in UCI's Earth system science department. "This suggests that soils could accelerate global warming through a vicious cycle in which man-made warming releases carbon from soils to the atmosphere, which, in turn, would warm the planet more."
Forest lands, which contain about 104 billion tons of carbon reserves, have been one of the biggest unknowns in climate change predictions. Northeastern woodlands that were once farm fields are currently one of the Earth's beneficial carbon sinks, holding nearly 26 billion tons. But climate scientists worry that trees and soils could become sources of greenhouse gas emissions rather than repositories.