How does soil store CO2?

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Posted January 9, 2014
Climate change: How does soil store CO2?
Carbon tends to bind to specific rough mineral surfaces, known as hot spots (yellow areas). Credit: C. Vogel/TUM
Global CO2 emissions continue to rise—in 2012 alone, 35.7 billion tons of this greenhouse gas entered the atmosphere. Some of it is absorbed by the oceans, plants and soil. They provide a significant reservoir of carbon. Scientists have now discovered how organic carbon is stored in soil: The carbon only binds to certain soil structures. This means that soil’s capacity to absorb CO2 needs to be re-assessed and incorporated into today’s climate models.

Previous studies have established that carbon binds to tiny mineral particles. In this latest study, published in Nature Communications, researchers have shown that the surface of the minerals plays just as important a role as their size. “The carbon binds to minerals that are just a few thousandths of a millimeter in size – and it accumulates there almost exclusively on rough and angular surfaces,” explains Prof. Ingrid Kögel-Knabner, TUM Chair of Soil Science.

The role of microorganisms in sequestering carbon

It is presumed that the rough mineral surfaces provide an attractive habitat for microbes. These convert the carbon and play a part in binding it to minerals. “We discovered veritable hot spots with a high proportion of carbon in the soil,” relates Cordula Vogel, the lead author of the study. “Furthermore, new carbon binds to areas which already have a high carbon content.”

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