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Soil study examine scenarios 2- to 4- times IPCC's "worst case" 2100 warming estimates

Funded by the grants from the National Science Foundation and ARCS Foundation, along with a Ralph J. & Carol M. Cicerone Graduate Fellowship, researchers at the University of California Irvine have been digging into dirt and testing what might happen in imaginative scenarios of a drastically warmed Earth.

I. Study Examines What if Warming Was 4x IPCC Estimates 

Temperatures are currently believed to be a modest 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels, and according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will rise between 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit (6.4 degrees Celsius) by 2100.

But the UCI study examined a much more extraordinary warming scenario in which the Earth has warmed either 18 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) or 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) -- the latter of which represents nearly four times the "worst case" situation the IPCC predicts for the next century.

Soil study
The study's estimates are 2-to-4 times the estimated maximum increases by the IPCC for the next 100 years. [Image Source: PNAS/UCI]

Thus perhaps it's wise to take the study in a bit more in the context of understanding paleoclimatology than discussing present day warming trends.

The study shows that if the woodlands of Wisconsin and North Carolina were to be heated by 10 or 20 degrees Celsius there'd be a steep rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide release from the soil.  At the highest tested temperature increase (20 degrees Celsius above the current temperature), carbon release was bumped eight-fold.

II. Research Try to Draw Tenuous Connection to Current Warming

Despite the fact that the paper's discussed scenarios are well outside the IPCC's predicted warming envelope, the UCI researchers are happy to speculate and reposition them to try to draw a connection to current warming.

Comments Francesca Hopkins a Ph.D candidate in the college's Earth System Science department, "We found that decades-old carbon in surface soils is released to the atmosphere faster when temperatures become warmer.  This suggests that soils could accelerate global warming through a vicious cycle in which human-made warming releases carbon from soils to the atmosphere, which, in turn, would warm the planet more."

soil test
Ms. Hopkins hard at work shoveling dirt. [Image Source: UCI]

Her work was published [abstract] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S. edition). 

Susan Trumbore of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry and UCI suggests that the results may indicate that trees could become sources of "global warming" rather than fighting them.  States Professor Trumbore, "Our results suggest that large stores of carbon that built up over the last century as forests recovered will erode with rising temperatures."

III. A Load of Dirt?

Some potential issues with the study include that it does not examine dampening effects created by such potential carbon release, such as sea warming shifting ocean currents and/or increased vegetative growth, either of which could have a compensatory effect, either decreasing atmospheric carbon levels or yielding global cooling.

Historically the Earth has heated and cooled multiple times, but has never encountered the kind of "doomsday" "runaway warming" scenario that some more imaginative researchers have predicted.  Every time the Earth has warmed or cooled life has adapted and flourished under the new conditions.

The field of global warming research has suffered in recent years from politicization of the issue and embarrassing email leaks that call into question the integrity of certain research institutions.  

The IPCC, a body of climatologists headed by a chief with no climatology background was also forced to recently recant on some of its more fantastic claims regarding global warming melting glaciers.  The IPCC realized a couple years after publishing those claims in an international report that these potentially eye-catching examples of warming would likely not occur.

Suntanning
Several studies have suggested that there's nothing mankind can do to truly "stop" global warming, so we'll perhaps have to make the best of it. [Image Source: Alaska in Pictures]

A key question is whether mankind can truly "stop" whatever warming is occurring due to human development.  Several studies have suggested we can't, so we may just have to learn to make the best of our slightly more seasonable globe.

Sources: PNAS, University of California Irvine





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