A Weapon Against Climate Change May Be Right Under Our Feet
Scientists battling to slow climate change and cope with its effects are harnessing an overlooked, yet potentially powerful partner — one that happens to be right beneath our feet.
Soil, they say, is critical to reducing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, where it traps heat and warms the planet. Keeping soil healthy also can go a long way in maximizing crop productivity and minimizing severe droughts, floods and storms that scientists say will only become more common as man-made emissions continue pushing the climate along its dangerous path.
“Climate change can be overwhelming. Yet there is real hope,” says Michael Pollan, a journalist and food advocate, in a new video on soil and climate shown in Paris during the 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21, earlier this month.
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Through photosynthesis, plants draw carbon from the air and deposit it in soil. However, over the last few centuries, human activity has significantly depleted that natural store of carbon, both directly through agricultural practices such as tilling, and indirectly through anthropogenic climate change. What’s more, a vicious cycle is underway, as global warming accelerates the rate of carbon released from soil due to extreme weather breaking it down and hotter temperatures stimulating soil-decomposing microbes — the latter being a particular concern in permafrost regions that are now melting. This, in turn, further warms the surface of the planet, sending yet more carbon into the atmosphere.
But strategies such as keeping soil covered by plants, increasing the diversity of crops and composting can replenish soil’s carbon stocks, scientists say.