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A Soil-Science Revolution Upends Plans to Fight Climate Change

Quanta Magazine 27 July 2021

Gabriel Popkin

The hope was that the soil might save us. With civilization continuing to pump ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, perhaps plants — nature’s carbon scrubbers — might be able to package up some of that excess carbon and bury it underground for centuries or longer.

That hope has fueled increasingly ambitious climate change–mitigation plans. Researchers at the Salk Institute, for example, hopeto bioengineer plants whose roots will churn out huge amounts of a carbon-rich, cork-like substance called suberin. Even after the plant dies, the thinking goes, the carbon in the suberin should stay buried for centuries. This Harnessing Plants Initiative is perhaps the brightest star in a crowded firmament of climate change solutions based on the brown stuff beneath our feet.

Such plans depend critically on the existence of large, stable, carbon-rich molecules that can last hundreds or thousands of years underground. Such molecules, collectively called humus, have long been a keystone of soil science; major agricultural practices and sophisticated climate models are built on them.

But over the past 10 years or so, soil science has undergone a quiet revolution, akin to what would happen if, in physics, relativity or quantum mechanics were overthrown. Except in this case, almost nobody has heard about it — including many who hope soils can rescue the climate. “There are a lot of people who are interested in sequestration who haven’t caught up yet,” said Margaret Torn, a soil scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

A new generation of soil studies powered by modern microscopes and imaging technologies has revealed that whatever humus is, it is not the long-lasting substance scientists believed it to be. Soil researchers have concluded that even the largest, most complex molecules can be quickly devoured by soil’s abundant and voracious microbes. The magic molecule you can just stick in the soil and expect to stay there may not exist.

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