Edge of erosion gully with fog rising from in the gully.

Climate change is warming the soil. But volcanic activity can do it too!

Image: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

It’s no secret that the world is warming. Scientists are studying how climate change affects all kinds of things, from icecaps to oceans, and single species to entire ecosystems. And there’s a lot to consider. When was the last time you thought about soil?

You might not notice soil microbes, but they’re important. They break down organic matter, such as decaying leaves and animal remains, providing nutrients for plants. And climate scientists are interested in soil because it can store carbon and help fight climate change.

So how do we learn about warming soils? The simple answer is to warm some up in the lab. But that won’t tell us everything. Over many years, the microbes in the soil might change completely as some species die and others thrive. And scientists need answers now – they can’t wait decades to find the answer.

Luckily, there are some places where the soil has been warmed for centuries. Volcanoes don’t just spew lava, they also heat the rocks underground. And that heat can last for thousands of years.

Scientists from New Zealand, the Netherlands and Brazil researched soil in volcanic areas, in places known as steam-heated depressions. The depressions have been there for centuries, plenty of time for the soil microbes to adapt.

The team measured 30 metres from the hottest areas to cooler areas further out. They took soil samples at several locations with different temperatures, at the surface and further below the ground. Then they took the samples back to the lab for testing.

The warmer samples had a different assortment of microbes. But both warmer and cooler microbe communities released similar amounts of carbon. That’s good news as it will be easier for climate scientists to make predictions. And it’s helpful information for soil scientists to know as the world continues to warm.
Exploring soils, A hidden world underground. Kids book from CSIRO Publishing.

If you want more soil science, pick up a copy of Exploring Soils! Take a journey with aspiring soil scientist James and discover the importance of soils in our world.

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