Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Could the alkaline soils of the world be the missing carbon sink?

The missing carbon sink is the large amount of unidentified carbon sink in the global carbon budget. According to the Woods Hole Research Center (2007) the average annual carbon emissions amount to 8.5 Pg (1 Pg or petagram is equal to 1 billion metric tonnes) comprising of 6.3 Pg from combustion of fossil fuels and 2.2 Pg from changes in land use. This is greater than the sum of the annual accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere (3.2 Pg) plus the annual uptake by the oceans (2.4 Pg) which is only 5.6 Pg. The difference of 2.9 Pg (i.e. 8.5-5.6=2.9) is unknown carbon sink required to balance the carbon budget.

Scientists have been searching for this big amount of unknown carbon sink during the last two decades. It was first thought to be located in the ocean considering that it occupies 70% of the earth’s surface. However, most scientists consider that the ocean sink is not big enough to account for the missing carbon (Xie et al., 2009). The next possible location is the world’s forest. In fact, many scientists believe that this large amount of missing carbon is absorbed by land-based carbon sinks particularly forests but estimates indicate that terrestrial ecosystems are a net sink of only 0.7 billion (Woods Hole Research Center, 2007). Some studies have revealed that carbon accumulation is largely counterbalanced by carbon loss from deforestation.

In a study published in Science, an international team of scientists led by Stephens (Stephens et al., 2007) revealed that the missing link may indeed be located in tropical ecosystems. They reported that northern terrestrial uptake of industrial carbon dioxide emissions is smaller than previously thought and that, after subtracting land-use emissions, tropical ecosystems may currently be strong sinks for carbon dioxide. But whether or not this is enough to account for the missing carbon is not yet clear.

The third possible location of the missing carbon sink is the soil which is one of the largest dynamic carbon pools on earth. In a recent paper published in the journal Environmental Geology, researchers from China revealed a carbon sink which has been largely overlooked in the past. Xie et al. (2009) reported that alkaline soils (i.e. soils with pH > 7.0) on land are absorbing CO2 at a rate of 0.3-3.0 ╬╝mol m-2 s-1 with an inorganic, non-biological process. The intensity of this CO2 absorption is determined by the salinity, alkalinity, temperature and water content of the saline/alkaline soils. They estimated the range at 62-622 g C m-2 year-1. Considering that there are about 700 million hectares of alkaline soils around the world, the amount of CO2 absorption could be very significant on a global scale and could be a major part of the missing carbon sink.


Woods Hole Research Center. 2007. The missing carbon sink. http://www.whrc(carbon/missingc.htm

Stephens B.B. et al. 2007. Weak northern and strong tropical land carbon uptake from vertical profile of atmospheric CO2. Science 316: 1732-1735.

Xie J, Y Li, C Zhai, C Li and Z Lan. 2009. CO2 absorption by alkaline soils and its implication to the global carbon cycle. Environmental Geology 56: 953-961.


Rob said...

Interesting information albeit I think carbon sequestration by alkaline soils needs further verification if such process does occur- Rob, Alberta, Canada

Anonymous said...

I've nothing against the Chinese researchers, but I'm not yet convinced of the contribution of alkaline soils as carbon sink. But this may turn out to be an important contribution to the issue of missing carbon sink. Let's wait and see.