‘Carbon sink’ detected underneath world’s deserts

PHOTO: e-education.psu.edu

PHOTO: e-education.psu.edu

The world’s deserts may be storing some of the climate-changing carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, a new study suggests. Massive aquifers underneath deserts could hold more carbon than all the plants on land, according to the new research.

Humans add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. About 40 percent of this carbon stays in the atmosphere and roughly 30 percent enters the ocean, according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

Scientists thought the remaining carbon was taken up by plants on land, but measurements show plants don’t absorb all of the leftover carbon. Scientists have been searching for a place on land where the additional carbon is being stored—the so-called “missing carbon sink.”

The new study suggests some of this carbon may be disappearing underneath the world’s deserts – a process exacerbated by irrigation.

Scientists examining the flow of water through a Chinese desert found that carbon from the atmosphere is being absorbed by crops, released into the soil and transported underground in groundwater—a process that picked up when farming entered the region 2,000 years ago.

Underground aquifers store the dissolved carbon deep below the desert where it can’t escape back to the atmosphere, according to the new study.

The new study estimates that because of agriculture roughly 14 times more carbon than previously thought could be entering these underground desert aquifers every year. These underground pools that taken together cover an area the size of North America may account for at least a portion of the “missing carbon sink” for which scientists have been searching.

“The carbon is stored in these geological structures covered by thick layers of sand, and it may never return to the atmosphere,” said Yan Li, a desert biogeochemist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Urumqi, Xinjiang, and lead author of the study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “It is basically a one-way trip.”

Knowing the locations of carbon sinks could improve models used to predict future climate change and enhance calculations of the Earth’s carbon budget, or the amount of fossil fuels humans can burn without causing major changes in the Earth’s temperature, according to the study’s authors.

Although there are most likely many missing carbon sinks around the world, desert aquifers could be important ones, said Michael Allen, a soil ecologist from the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of California-Riverside who was not an author on the new study.

If farmers and water managers understand the role heavily-irrigated inland deserts play in storing the world’s carbon, they may be able to alter how much carbon enters these underground reserves, he said.

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