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Natural Weathering and Carbon Sinks can Help Fight Climate Change

The extensive habitats of the earth, spanning from the poles to the equator, have the strong potential to eliminate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the undiscovered rock nitrogen weathering reactions that distribute natural fertilizers across the globe.

Natural Weathering and Carbon Sinks can Help Fight Climate Change.

Image Credit: TR STOK

The new science highlights the significance of protecting ecosystems. The research was done by a team led by Cornell University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of California at Davis.

The study was published in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles.

Excess carbon is already harming people, economies and our planet. But we’ve been enjoying a free subsidy provided by Earth—a large carbon sink on land and in the ocean—and, as a society we’re not paying for the carbon-sink service explicitly. But where is this sink and how long will it last?

Benjamin Houlton, Study Senior Author and Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University

From the beginning of the industrial revolution, a large volume of carbon dioxide was emitted by humans into the atmosphere. However, a quarter of the emission was drawn naturally by land and its vegetation. This terrestrial carbon sink was discovered by scientists only in the late 1990s. While another quarter of the carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans, 50% of the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, which influences climate change.

We’re facing incredible threats from climate change and unless we find pathways to store and sequester carbon, it will get worse,” added Houlton.

After analysis of the regular scenario, the researchers stated that throughout the rest of the century, the background nitrogen inputs from biological fixation and rock weathering are capable of two to five times more terrestrial carbon uptake than the agriculture and industry induced nitrogen pollution.

Previously, we had believed that this terrestrial carbon sink was more vulnerable. Now we’re suggesting that because of the previously undiscovered slow-release nitrogen, the terrestrial carbon sink will continue to be robust.

Pawlok Dass, Study Lead Author and Postdoctoral Researcher, Northern Arizona University,

Dass was formerly working in Houlton’s laboratory at the University of California, Davis, where Houlton performed the study before joining Cornell University.

Yet, society must not reduce the preventive measures as fossil fuels can contribute additional nitrogen to the atmosphere, which can bypass the terrestrial carbon cycles instead of serving as a fertilizer. This may lead to the pollution of downstream water bodies. According to Dass, lowering such huge nitrogen pollution can boost human health, the environment and the economy, without endangering the natural, terrestrial carbon sinks.

Dass noted that to preserve the carbon sinks, the locations with strong rock nitrogen weathering or biological nitrogen fixation need to be preserved. These regions include mountainous regions, biologically diverse tropical forests and the robustly changing boreal zone (for example, the complete stretch of forests from Alaska to Canada to Siberia).

Our work suggests that the conservation of these ecosystems, which have built-in capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. is going to be vital to making sure that we don’t lose out on Earth’s terrestrial carbon sink service in the future.

Benjamin Houlton, Study Senior Author and Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University

Journal Reference:

Dass, P., et al. (2021) Bedrock Weathering Controls on Terrestrial Carbon-Nitrogen-Climate Interactions. Global Biogeochemical Cycles.


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