Scientists map soils’ potential to combat climate change

Soil holds about three times as much organic carbon as the atmosphere, which means that making strategic changes to how soil systems are used could play a major role in combating climate change.

With that in mind, two Cornell soil scientists have helped develop a powerful new tool that will help researchers and policymakers map the global potential for carbon sequestration.

Soils Revealed is an open-access, interactive platform that uses cutting-edge technology to model how soil organic carbon has fluctuated over the last 11,000 years and to project soil’s future carbon-storing capacity.

This new tool will help policymakers and nongovernmental organizations meet their regional and national climate goals by pinpointing key areas for soil restoration and for implementing land management practices that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Launched on Dec. 1, Soils Revealed was developed in collaboration with scientists at The Nature Conservancy, Woodwell Climate Research Center and the International Soil Reference and Information Center.

“This innovative platform delivers the immense opportunities of soils to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide at your fingertips,” said Johannes Lehmann, co-lead investigator and Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). “We hope that policymakers and industry get to work and explore where they can help to restore our soils with carbon and mitigate climate change.”

According to Lehmann, Soils Revealed is the first interactive, global tool that shows how organic carbon in the soil has changed over time, as well as how much potential different land management strategies have to mitigate climate change.

“Soils have a vital role to play in mitigating climate change and supporting biodiversity, but to date we’ve tended to view them too much in static terms,” said Deborah Bossio, project leader and lead soil scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “One of our goals with this launch is to remind policymakers that these complex, millennia-old ecosystems are every bit as dynamic as forests – and every bit as capable of recovery, if the right management practices are prioritized. We already know how to do this; now Soils Revealed can show us where to focus these efforts.”

Dominic Woolf, senior research associate in the Soil and Crop Sciences Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science in CALS, conducted the future soil carbon modelling scenarios for the platform.

“It is really exciting that we now have the digital tools to explore at high resolution – even down to the individual farm – what strategies work best and how much carbon we can store,” Woolf said. “This should provide real benefits in guiding policy and land management decisions at all levels.”

The platform’s map allows users to focus on specific regions; search by political, geographical and biological zones; and sort through a variety of land-use scenarios that range from croplands to forests and wetlands.

Woolf said soils’ ability to sequester carbon can vary widely between different climates, biomes and land management practices. By allowing users to explore future scenarios where ecosystems are restored or carbon farming practices are implemented, for example, they can see a direct connection between how land use changes affect global carbon emissions, soil health and environmental well-being.

“Filtering the data according to these parameters really helps to find targeted solutions that are applicable to specific conditions,” Woolf said. “Being able to visualize the stark differences between these possible futures should be a wake-up call to the need to radically improve how we care for the land.”

Funding for the project was provided by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, where Lehmann and Woolf are both faculty fellows.

Jana Wiegand is the editorial content manager for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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