How Carbon Changes Will Affect the Future

By Emily Carpenter

Lorien Reynolds was always meant to be a scientist. As a child she would use silverware to dissect things on the kitchen table, and perform exciting scientific experiments in the bathroom. Her love for science only increasing as she grew older, she settled on studying ecology as an undergraduate because it was a science she could study outdoors.

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Ecologist Lorien Reynolds, photo copyright Jonathan Lange

Today Reynolds conducts her experiments on prairielands using heat lamps. She is a fourth year doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon studying the effects of warming associated with the change in organic carbon in soils.

Organic soils are made up of decomposed plant materials, says Reynolds, and it is a long term process.  These materials can decompose over thousands of years or decades. These organic soils are “storage sinks” for carbon. The focus of Reynolds’s work is the carbons released by microorganisms oxidizing the organic material in soil, so it becomes CO2.  “That of course comes off the surface of the soil, and that’s called soil respiration, and then goes back into the atmosphere,” says Reynolds.

The rate of decomposition in soils is partially determined by temperature. As global temperatures increase, the rate of decomposition is increasing, and so is the rate of carbon dioxide production. An increase in carbon dioxide might create an even greater change in the global climate.  Reynolds’ job is to learn more about this cycle.

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Ecology science lab, photo copyright Jonathan Lange

“There’s been soil warm studies done around the world in a variety of different habitats and they get all kind of results across the board,” says Reynolds. In the Pacific Northwest prairie Reynolds studies, plots of land are sectioned off and warmed by about 3 degrees Celsius with radiating heat lamps. Half of the plots are heated with dummy lamps so scientists can tell if shading from the heat lamps is having an effect on the experiment. Each prairie fragment is set up with 20 plots to make sure the experiment is repeated enough for accurate data.

Part of Reynolds’ attraction to ecology was the possibility that her work might make a difference for society. “The questions around soil carbon dynamics are incredibly complex, incredibly intractable and incredibly important,” she says. When countries are looking at the reality of climate change, they are also looking for ways to adapt to it. The future is uncertain, and a piece of the mystery is hidden in the soil. Reynolds is hoping that her work will help to answer some of the questions about carbon sources that will be important for making choices about the future.

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Lorien Reynolds in science lab, photo copyright Jonathan Lange

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