Huge carbon stores discovered beneath UK grasslands

 

A nationwide survey by ecologists has revealed that over 2 billion tons of carbon is stored deep under the UK’s grasslands, helping to curb climate change.

However, decades of intensive farming, involving heavy fertilizer use and excessive livestock grazing, have caused a serous decline in valuable soil carbon stocks in grasslands across the UK.

The nationwide survey was carried out by a team of scientists from the Universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Reading and Newcastle, as well as Rothamsted Research.

The team found that 60% of the UK’s total soil carbon stored in grasslands – covering a third of UK land surface – is between 30cm and 1m deep. The team estimated the total grassland soil carbon in Great Britain to be 2097 teragrams of carbon to a depth of 1m.

Though the effects of high intensity agriculture are strongest in the surface layer of soil, they also discovered that this deep carbon is sensitive to the way land has been farmed.

Dr Sue Ward, the lead author of the paper from Lancaster Environment Centre, said:

“What most surprised us was the depth at which we were still able to detect a change in soil carbon due to historic land management.

“We have long known that carbon is stored in surface soils and is sensitive to the way land is managed. But now we know that this too is true at considerable soil depths under our grasslands.

“This is of high relevance given the extent of land cover and the large stocks of carbon held in managed grasslands worldwide.”

In contrast, the soils that were richest in carbon were those that had been subjected to less intensive farming, receiving less fertilizer and with fewer grazing animals. The team found that soil carbon stocks were 10% higher at intermediate levels of management, compared to intensively managed grasslands.

Professor Richard Bardgett from The University of Manchester said:

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

He added:

“These findings could impact how grasslands are managed for carbon storage and climate mitigation, as current understanding does not account for changes in soil carbon at these depths.

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

The research is part of a five year research project, supported by DEFRA, aimed at managing UK grassland diversity for multiple ecosystem services, including carbon capture.

 


The paper, ‘Legacy effects of grassland management on soil 1 carbon to depth’ is available in the journal Global Change Biology.

Tuesday Feature episode 31: Franciska De Vries

In episode 31 of the Tuesday Feature we question Franciska about all things soil.


 

Please can you briefly explain your research in simple terms?

I look at how plants and soils interact. Plants pump carbon into the soil and there are lots of microbes and other organisms in the soils which use this carbon to perform important processes, they release nutrients for plants to use and I study how that works. Mainly I look at how feedbacks and processes respond to climate change and land-use change.

How does this research benefit the general public?

It’s important to know how ecosystems will respond to climate change and other future changes such as land-use change. Ecosystems provide valuable functions and deliver important services such as food production and carbon sequestration for climate mitigation.  We look at how soils will be able to continue under climate change which underpins society and human life. We need to eat and food comes from the soil in one way or another!

How did you first become interested in soils?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree at Wageningen University in the Netherlands I had a really good lecturer who gave particularly interesting lectures on soil biodiversity,  I guess it was from there that I discovered how interesting soil science really is. I just really wanted to learn more!

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

I went to study environmental studies for my undergraduate degree because I wanted to save the world. I wanted to be a scientist on a green peace ship so it actually turned out all differently. I didn’t really have a big hero – I just wanted to save the world.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Massively – it’s just a really inspiring environment and there are a lot of very good people that are really supportive in anything you want to do. I have had a lot of support; particularly for my grant applications and it really is a great place to work.

What do you do outside of work?

I do a lot of sports: I like to mountain bike, run and climb. Sport is kind of in the background now because I have a one year old that takes up all my time.

 

A Summer of Science – a Celebration of Environmental Research

In celebration of the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) 50th anniversary, a series of special science outreach events have taken place as part of the “summer of science”. As part of this, four teams of scientists from the FLS were given funding to host the “FLS environmental roadshows”.

The roadshow took place in 3 events – the FLS Community Open Day, a special adult-only event at the Manchester Museum and a one day exhibition at the Jodrell Bank Observatory is Cheshire. The open day saw over 850 people come to the University where they got to learn about the exciting life of plants.

For the one day exhibition the team were based at the Jodrell Discover Centre. The family friendly event saw cockroaches running up children’s arms, earthworms moving through soil and hands on experiences with carnivorous plants. The adults at the centre were taught about food security, radioactive contamination and soil ecology.

Dr Giles Johnson, Deputy Associate Dean for Social Responsibility and Faculty Lead for Environmental Sustainability said:

For us, the event was a huge success.  We were able to explain our science to a wide range of the public and we were also challenged to think about our science in new ways, by the questions we were asked.  It was a great day out.

Becky Burns, the Head of Gardens and Interpretation at Jodrell Bank thanks the team:

Thanks to the FLS team for coming out to Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre with their Summer of Science Roadshow! Visitors of all ages enjoyed interacting with enthusiastic staff and students, exploring the world of plants and living creatures and learning about their ongoing research.

Jodrell Bank, famous for its radio telescopes, has a long lasting association with Life Sciences in Manchester. Even before the telescopes moved in, the Bank housed the Victoria University Botany department. The botany tradition has continued through to today with an extensive arboretum, which is where the national collection of apples trees bloom. It makes for a great visit – so why not treat yourself this weekend.