For years environmental scientists have warned of a catastrophic climate “feedback loop” that could pump a massive underground repository of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, significantly worsening climate change. A new study published this week confirms that fear is finally coming to pass. Rising temperatures are causing microorganisms in the soil to breathe more quickly, which releases an increased amount of carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere. Global warming has become so serious that greenhouse gasses are simply rising out of the ground beneath our feet worldwide.
Most people don’t realize that the planet’s soil is packed with a dense network of trapped carbon, created by plants and roots that have been buried over the eons. These plants pull in carbon from the air to use as fuel, and when they die, the carbon remains within the soil. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem: it serves as a natural carbon sink which helps regulate the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, rising temperatures affect microorganisms living in the soil, naturally increasing their rate of respiration – and thus the rate at which greenhouse gasses are released. The worst part is that this is not a small, insignificant amount of carbon. It’s expected that by the year 2050, this natural process could release an additional 55 billion tons of carbon into the air. The authors of the new study describe that as the same impact as “having an extra US on the planet.”
This means that we now face a much shorter timeline to cut human greenhouse gas emissions – and that, despite our best efforts, we may not actually be able to limit global temperature rise within bounds that would limit the worst effects. If we exceed less than 1,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, global temperatures could blow past 2 degrees Celsius, shattering the widely-held target of most climate scientists and environmental organizations.
Unless strong action is taken immediately to limit emissions from all human sources, we could very easily exceed our planetary “carbon budget.” This study shows that it’s now more important than ever to put pressure on corporations and politicians to limit their emissions immediately.