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World’s Soils Have Lost 133bn Tonnes of Carbon Since the Dawn of Agriculture
By Daisy Dunne
The world's soils have lost a total of 133bn tonnes of carbon since humans first started farming the land around 12,000 years ago, new research suggests. And the rate of carbon loss has increased dramatically since the start of the industrial revolution.
The study, which maps where soil carbon has been lost and gained since 10,000 BC, shows that crop production and cattle grazing have contributed almost equally to global losses.
Understanding how agriculture has altered soil carbon stocks is critical to finding ways to restore lost carbon to the ground, another scientist tells Carbon Brief, which could help to buffer the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere.
Soil as a Carbon Sink
The top meter of the world's soils contains three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere, making it a major carbon sink alongside forests and oceans.
Soils play a key role in the carbon cycle by soaking up carbon from dead plant matter. Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and pass carbon to the ground when dead roots and leaves decompose.
But human activity, in particular agriculture, can cause carbon to be released from the soil at a faster rate than it is replaced. This net release of carbon to the atmosphere contributes to global warming.
New research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimates the total amount of carbon that has been lost since humans first settled into agricultural life around 12,000 years ago.
The research finds that 133bn tonnes of carbon, or 8 percent of total global soil carbon stocks, may have been lost from the top two meters of the world's soil since the dawn of agriculture. This figure is known as the total "soil carbon debt."
Around two-thirds of lost carbon could have ended up in the atmosphere, while the rest may have been transported further afield before being deposited back into the soil.
And since the industrial revolution, the rate of soil carbon loss has increased, said lead author Dr. Jonathan Sanderman, a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. He told Carbon Brief:
"Considering humans have emitted about 450bn tonnes of carbon since the industrial revolution, soil carbon losses to the atmosphere may represent 10 to 20% of this number. But it has hard to calculate exactly how much of this has ended up in the atmosphere versus how much has been transported due to erosion."
'Hotspots' for Carbon Loss
As part of the study, the researchers designed an artificially intelligent model that used an existing global soil dataset to estimate past levels of soil carbon stocks, Sanderman said.
"We used a dataset which defines 10,000 BC as a world without a human footprint. What we did was develop a model that could explain the current distribution of soil carbon across the globe as a function of climate, topography [physical features], geology and land use. Then we replaced current land use with historic reconstructions including the 'no land use' case to get predictions of soil carbon levels back in time."
To calculate an overall soil carbon debt, the researchers subtracted the amount of current global soil carbon from the amount of soil carbon predicted to have existed in the era before human agriculture. The model also allowed the researchers to estimate global soil carbon stocks at different points throughout history, including at the advent of the industrial revolution.
The results allow scientists to get a clearer picture on how 12,000 years of human agriculture have affected the world's soil stocks, said Sanderman.
"More carbon has been lost due to agriculture than has generally been recognized and a lot of this loss predated the industrial revolution. This loss isn't equally distributed across agricultural land. Some regions stand out as having lost the most carbon."
Map B below shows the regions that have experienced the most soil carbon loss, and includes the U.S. corn belt and western Europe. The red shading represents the very highest level of soil carbon loss since 10,000 BC, while blue shows the highest level of carbon gain.
Map A shows the global distribution and intensity of crop production (red) and cattle grazing (green) and map B shows regional changes to soil carbon stocks since 10,000 BC. On map B, blue represents the highest level of soil carbon gain since 10,000 BC, while red shows the highest level of carbon loss. Black shows unfarmed desert regions.
The U.S. corn belt and western Europe are likely to have experienced high levels of soil carbon loss as a result of long periods of intense crop production, said Sanderman.
However, the analysis also reveals a number of regions which have seen high levels of soil carbon loss despite having relatively little farming. These "hot spots"—including the rangelands of Argentina, southern Africa and parts of Australia—are considered to be particularly vulnerable to land degradation driven by agriculture, said Sanderman.
"Semi-arid and arid grasslands [the hotspots] are particularly vulnerable to potentially irreversible degradation if grazing intensity is too high. That's because there isn't a lot of soil carbon to start with and there can often be a complete shift in vegetation cover leading to lots of erosion."
Map A shows the distribution and intensity of crop production (red) and cattle grazing (green) across the world. Both have contributed almost equally to loss of soil carbon stocks, Sanderman said.
Repaying the Debt
Identifying how much carbon has been lost from the soil could also help scientists understand how much could be replenished, if soils were managed so that they took up more carbon from the atmosphere than they released into it.
Soil carbon management is one of a number of negative emissions technologies (NETs) that could help to remove greenhouse gases from the air. Research suggests that NETs will be key to meeting the Paris agreement, which aims to keep warming "well below" 2C above pre-industrial temperatures, while striving to limit increases to 1.5C.
In theory, soils could be managed in a way that would allow them to reabsorb all of the carbon that has been lost since the agricultural revolution. In practice, however, this is highly unlikely, Sanderman explained.
"This figure [133bn tonnes of carbon] is likely a maximum potential if we were willing to give up agriculture and completely restore natural ecosystems. That is obviously not going to happen, so the real potential—giving the constraint of needing to feed 10 billion people by 2050—is going to be a lot lower."
"Modifying large-scale agricultural practices to restore some of these lost soil carbon stocks might be a valuable strategy in our efforts to dampen climate change. If regenerative agriculture can restore some of the carbon that we have lost, then it might be a really valuable tool in our fight against climate change."
However, the study lacks clarity on how it considers peat soils, said Prof. Meine van Noordwijk, chief science advisor at the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya, who also wasn't involved in the study.
Peat is a type of soil made up of waterlogged partially-decomposed plant material such as moss, which builds up over thousands of years in wetland environments including bogs.
Peat soils are thought to contain up to half of global soil carbon stocks, van Noordwijk explain to Carbon Brief, and so are of particular concern:
"Peat soils require and currently receive separate attention. Water management [of wetland soils] is a relevant part of agricultural use, leading to [carbon] losses, but also indicating opportunities for restoration."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.
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England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
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A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
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Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
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The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.