A new collaborative study from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the University of Boulder, Colorado and the University of Kentucky highlights how removing trees from a landscape has more worrying consequences for climate change in some soils than others. The report could give vital insights into the ecosystems that need extra careful management, in other words which are most vulnerable to lost biodiversity and which are less affected by the widespread removal of trees.
Soil was analysed from eleven different regions of the USA, ranging from Hawaii’s to the north of Alaska, revealing the extent to which deforestation disturbs the rich communities of underground microbes whose job it is to regulate the release of carbon. It turns out that the damage done depends almost exclusively on the texture of the soil in question, and sandy soils suffer the most.
It turns out the microbes in sandy soils are worst affected by deforestation, which alters them dramatically, while muddy and clay-rich soils are barely affected at all, even after extensive deforestation.
The results of the research, which were published in the journal Global Change Biology, astonished lead author Thomas Crowther, who was very surprised to see how strongly changes in biodiversity affects the underlying soil. The texture of the soil was the single most important factor, over-riding the effects of temperature, moisture levels, nutrient concentrations and soil pH.
The research also explored how deforestation might affect microbial biodiversity over time. But rather than finding a correlation over the course of the past 200 years, there was nothing. This means that the effects of deforestation are consistent, no matter how long ago it happened.
The team have mapped areas where soil ecosystems are most likely to be vulnerable using existing information about soil distribution. This mapping could ultimately inform best land management practice, biodiversity conservation and soil-based carbon sequestration.
Deforestation was already known to be responsible for dramatic losses of carbon from soil, regulated by remarkably diverse underground microbial life. The more the soil’s microbial community is damaged and disturbed, the more CO2 escapes into the atmosphere. The result, if we’re not careful, could be exaggerated global warming. Thankfully the research goes a long way to providing the tools needed to prioritise rainforest conservation.