The world’s soil is going through drastic effects from climate change. It is a subject the public may not be paying close attention to. After all, why should we worry about boring old soil?
In fact, soil is literally fundamental. It plays a major role in groundwater supplies, food production and security, stormwater runoff, biodiversity, and the health of our ecosystems overall. It also stores upwards of 2,500 gigatons of carbon. That’s more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. But without the right amount of precipitation or sun, its ability to keep the carbon trapped is getting weaker.
Many may not understand how important of a role soil plays in everyday life. It’s home to so many insects and organisms and it’s the base and lifeline for almost every plant in the world, including of course trees, which are one of the earth’s biggest oxygen sources. Each tree can make on average 260 pounds of oxygen a year. Farming industries and global food security also depends on healthy soil. And soil erosion threatens not only human food and oxygen supplies, but other living organisms as well.
But climate change has lead to an increase in soil erosion, which is happens when the top layer of rich soil that includes minerals and particles that plants and crops thrive in gets disturbed by large amounts of rainfall and wind. Climate change has disrupted rain cycles, bringing large amounts of rain in a short period of time where soils lack sufficient drainage systems to distribute all the water. As a result, runoff carries off that organic topsoil. When that top layer is gone, it leaves behind the dead, dry subsoil that is not suitable to grow any major crops or plants and only supplies enough nutrients for small weeds. With no vegetation on the soil, this will mean that it would flood easily and faster.
Soil also plays a big role in the in the world’s climate change crisis because that rich topsoil that’s getting run off by disturbed rain patterns store a chunk of the worlds carbon. This layer stores up to 30%-40% of the world’s terrestrial carbon.
It’s not just the rain that is having a big impact on the soil. More and more droughts due to climate change are also throwing the whole cycle around leaving the soil too dry to absorb and drain the rain when it comes in bigger quantities in shorter times. Having a dry soil bed could also mean that most of the time the air temperature around that area will be much warmer than an area with rich saturated soil.
These problems are only going to get worse and as they do, they bring a whole new set of challenges. One large problem revolves around buildings and structures. When building large structures you need a good base and dry and dead is far from that.
Forest fires are getting more common and intense throughout the world due to drier forest conditions. The span between each fire season is getting shortened from the more intense heat, more lightning, and less rain. The carbon in the soil comes from plants and animals dying and decomposing. The boreal forest is a carbon “sink” as long as it is collecting more carbon (dead plant and animal matter) than is getting burned and released into the atmosphere from forest fires. When the forest fires burn off more carbon than it collected since the last forest fire, then the forest is producing more atmospheric carbon than it is stored in the soil. Climate change is turning the forests from carbon sinks into carbon producers.
Soil without any crops or forest on them are more susceptible to erosion and degradation because there’s less roots in their soil, leaving it exposed to the sun and rain. This is a major threat as people around the world are increasing deforestation. In 2018, for example, Brazil lost 2,240,000 acres of forest.
Effects linked to climate change come in all shapes and sizes, whether it’s something that we walk on, build on or grow on. If soil and forest management isn’t improved, we could see the effects of climate change accelerate. Al Gore, an American politician and environmentalist has said, “The warnings about global warming have been extremely clear for a long time. We are facing a global climate crisis. It is deepening. We are entering a period of consequences.” It seems a loss of our fertile topsoils may turn out to be one of those consequences.
Image credit: Max Pixel