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All We Need Is?

?a little more time to plan - Maybe the earth is giving us a little more time to save it. New research shows that we should be looking to the ground, not the sky, to see where climate change could have its most perilous impact on life on Earth. And scientists have discovered that some of their computer climate models?the ones that analyze dirt?may be overestimating global warming predictions.

Soil organic matter is what makes dirt fertile and able to support plant life?both of which are especially important for agriculture. Organic matter retains water in the soil and prevents erosion. Natural processes of decomposition of soil organic matter provide plants and microbes with the energy source and water they need to grow, and carbon is released into the atmosphere as a by-product of this process. Warming temperatures are expected to speed up this process which will increase the amount of CO2 that is transferred to the atmosphere.

As a result of global warming, soils are expected to release more carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, which, in turn, creates more warming. Climate models try to incorporate these increases of carbon dioxide from soils as the planet warms, but results vary greatly when realistic estimates of black carbon in soils are included in the predictions.

Soils include many forms of carbon, including organic carbon from leaf litter and vegetation and black carbon from the burning of organic matter. It takes a few years for organic carbon to decompose, as microbes eat it and convert it to carbon dioxide. But black carbon?the residue of burned organic matter?can take 1,000-2,000 years to convert to carbon dioxide.

When a new study measured the amount of black carbon in 452 Australian soils across two savannas, the black carbon content varied widely, between zero and more than 80%.

Researcher Johannes Lehmann says, "We know from measurements that climate change today is worse than people have predicted, but this particular aspect, black carbon's stability in soil, if incorporated in climate models, would actually decrease climate predictions."

Why analyze soil? Scientists have discovered that global warming actually changes the molecular structure of organic matter in soil.

Chemist Myrna J. Simpson says, "Soil contains more than twice the amount of carbon than does the atmosphere, yet, until now, scientists haven't examined this significant carbon pool closely. Through our research, we've sought to determine what soils are made up of at the molecular level and whether this composition will change in a warmer world.

"From the perspective of agriculture, we can't afford to lose carbon from the soil because it will change soil fertility and enhance erosion. Alternatively, consider all the carbon locked up in permafrost in the Arctic. We also need to understand what will happen to the stored carbon when microbes become more active under warmer temperatures."

It's not too late to plan for the future. If the world continues to warm up in the coming century, researcher Elisabeth Hamin thinks that she and other futurists should stress the fact that cities and towns should begin right now to assess such predicted impacts as warmer winters, more severe storms and more intense rainfall?because if we?ve learned only one lesson already, it?s that we?re going to be surprised by what's to come.

Carefully crafted zoning rules might help everyone from village councils to big cities sidestep problems and guide development to not only save taxpayer?s money but also reduce risk to home buyers? and developers' investments.

Until recently, even if mayors and planning commission members wanted to see climate change predictions for their towns, they couldn?t do so easily, because past global climate change models divided the earth's surface into grids hundreds of miles across, larger than some New England states. But now more useful details on a smaller scale are becoming available.

Researcher Craig Nicolson agrees: "If you're the mayor of Springfield, there's been no place where you could find out what global climate models predict for your city compared to Boston's, for example, with any precision. Yet we know that climate change impacts on the two cities are going to be different... These kinds of things can now be anticipated. We can prevent some of the most awful surprises by looking ahead instead of backward in time. We can start to answer the question of how we deal with what?s likely to come."

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