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Buying time for the planet

Sherri Morris is trying to buy a little time.

Dr. Sherri Morris in the field.d.As an ecologist she hopes through her research to buy that time for planet earth, the victim of global climate change due to rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel use and changes in land use.

In a year’s time, the millions of cars operating on planet earth plus industrial emissions pour several gigatons of exhaust into the atmosphere. But that’s only part of the problem. When trees were cut for farmland more than 100 years ago, 50% of the carbon stored in the top 20 to 30 centimeters of the soil was lost. Carbon stocks represent a store of nutrients that plants can use to grow. Soil carbon also increases the ability of soils to retain water and retain pore space so roots can grow through soil.

“Now, the question is, how do we trap carbon back in the earth,” Dr. Morris says.
Through federal funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Forest Service she is pursuing the answer. Her research is examining how much carbon is stored in the soil and how to maximize storage in a piece of land.

Dr. Morris in the lab.Morris’ studies focus on understanding changes in soil carbon pools when agricultural fields are returned to forest. To do this she is planting trees on marginal land in an attempt to re-enrich the soil. The trees take carbon from the atmosphere and when they drop their leaves, the “litter” decomposes on the forest floor and returns carbon to the soil. The “litter” turnover can occur in as little as a year. And, in the process, the addition of the trees to the land may help stop erosion.

“Increasing terrestrial carbon sinks may provide temporary solutions that can decrease the probability of damage while alternative strategies are developed,” she says.

Dr. Morris began her work in Michigan and has expanded her research to include soil-sampling sites in eight states, Mexico and Canada. After the samples are collected, she compares the carbon in afforested areas to adjacent land that is currently cultivated for agricultural purposes. With that information she can calculate the amount of carbon that has accumulated.

Dr. Sherri Morris is an assistant professor of
biology. She holds B.S. and M.S. degrees from
San Diego State University and a Ph.D. from
Ohio State University.

The amount of soil carbon stored following afforestation is inconsistent, but Morris is examining how this approach can be used as a land management alternative so that carbon can be stored in the land for the longest period. Research will help determine the right trees and best fertilizers to use to achieve optimal storage and reduce the loss of carbon in the soil. That information will be vital in formulating land management plans. And, as one com­ponent of land use change, afforestation could regain 100 million tons or one gigaton of carbon in 10 years.

If her research is successful, the process could decrease the CO2 release by reestablishing forest soil carbon stocks while other solutions are developed for carbon release from fossil fuels. And, planet earth is waiting for the help as global temperature and precipitation patterns are changing.