Science Diary: Tundra – Stored
Music; Ambience: walking on the tundra
TS: “Plants take up carbon from the air. Dead plants enter the soil. Soil is broken down by bacteria that release carbon back to the air. That’s a natural cycle.”
JM: On the Alaskan tundra, ecologist Ted Schuur is studying this carbon cycle, trying to see if warming temperatures will change it. Welcome to Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries, a glimpse of the world of science from the inside. Many scientists believe that a change in the carbon cycle could have dire effects on global climate.
TS: “We are interested if the natural cycle will change in a warmer world, and will that cause carbon that was formerly in plants or soil to end up in the atmosphere, because the more carbon in the atmosphere, the warmer it gets. If that warming condition causes more carbon to be released from the soil, then you can have this runaway greenhouse effect.”
JM: But why travel to Alaska to study these changes?
TS: “The reason why the North is so important is, first of all, it’s experiencing higher temperatures than the rest of the globe as a average, and then, second of all, there’s a lot of carbon frozen in the permafrosthuge amounts, actually. We think it’s on the order of-all the carbon that’s contained in the atmosphere, there’s probably almost twice that stored in the soils and permafrost in high latitude ecosystems.”
JM: Permafrost is soil that remains frozen year round. Using radiocarbon dating, Ted Schuur is trying to determine how much old, stored carbon from the permafrost is being released into the atmosphere.
TS: “Carbon that’s been in the permafrost for a long time actually got there hundreds to thousands of years ago, and when we measure the radiocarbon, we’re actually able to distinguish daily carbon that’s been taken up by plants that day versus carbon that may be thawing out of the permafrost and being released carbon that’s been stored there for millennia.”
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