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January 12, 2015

Arctic soils key to future climate


Scientists race against climate change to determine the impact of thawing Arctic soils and potential carbon release

Since the last ice age, plants in the Alaskan Arctic have been taking carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it away in the soil. So, for thousands of years, the soil microbes in this region of the world have subsisted on a limited carbon diet because much of the organic matter is frozen into the permafrost layer, which starts about a foot underground.

But now, the permafrost is starting to thaw. That means all those microbes are about to find themselves at an all-you-can-eat carbon buffet.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), ecologist Matthew Wallenstein and a team from Colorado State University have come to the Toolik Field Station, deep inside the Arctic Circle, to drill soil cores for study. The researchers are trying to find out more about how microbes in the soil are cycling carbon from the Earth to the atmosphere.

Scientists estimate the Arctic stores more carbon in its landscape than is stored in the entire atmosphere. So, if that carbon is released, it has the potential to impact climate worldwide, as well as crop productivity and wildfires.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1255228, CAREER: Microbial Allocation of Assimilated Carbon: Interactions Between Temperature, Substrate Quality and Microbial Physiology Determine Efficiency of Arctic Soil Carbon Cycling. CAREER is NSF's Faculty Early Career Development Program.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer


Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.