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Climate change shock unearthed
By John von Radowitz in London
September 9, 2005
Present forecasts of climate change could be seriously underestimated
because of huge amounts of carbon pouring out of the earth.
A unique soil study in Britain produced results that came as a shock
to scientists, who said the effect was probably happening in other
parts of the world, especially in temperate regions with wet, peaty
Experts had assumed that about 25 per cent of total human carbon
emissions were mopped up by vegetation which then dies, locking the
carbon into the soil.
But they had not reckoned on the extent to which soil bacteria work
on compost, and release the carbon back into the atmosphere.
The new research indicates that the amount of carbon being released
from soil is enough to cancel out all the carbon dioxide emission
reductions achieved by Britain between 1990 and 2002.
The study found that in England and Wales the soil lost carbon at a
rate of 0.6 per cent a year between 1978 and 2003.
Extrapolated to the whole of Britain it amounted to annual carbon
losses of 13 million tonnes - equivalent to 8 per cent of all carbon
dioxide emissions from British industry in 1990.
The findings, published in the journal Nature, were presented
yesterday at the BA Festival of Science at Trinity College, Dublin.
The National Soil Inventory survey involved taking and analysing soil
samples from 5600 sites in England and Wales.
Samples were checked for their carbon content in 1978 and again in
2003. Soils with a higher carbon content were found to be losing
their carbon at a higher rate. Most of the carbon escaped as carbon
It was recognised that in about 50 years the amount of carbon coming
out of the soil would catch up with the amount going in.
There was little that could be done to tackle the problem without
addressing the fundamental question of human carbon dioxide
emissions, Professor Kirk said.
"If you were prepared to turn the whole of arable England back to
trees that would work, but it's not practical," he said.
German experts Ernest Detlef Schulze and Annette Freibauer, from the
Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, wrote in an
accompanying commentary in Nature that the scientific and political
implications of the new findings were considerable.
"If we intend to stabilise the climate, such areas require much more
serious consideration," they wrote.
Guy Kirk, from Cranfield University in Bedfordshire,
said: "Our findings suggest that the soil part of the equation is
scarier than had been thought. If the 25 per cent is going to go, it
means we've got 25 per cent more carbon to worry about. We should be
concerned, for sure � If we don't do something about it, global
warming will accelerate and the consequences will be disaster."
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