UI Professor Finds Deserts as Significant Carbon Sink in Long-Term Study

Tuesday, April 8 2014

MOSCOW, Idaho – April 7, 2014 – A 10-year study in the Mojave Desert shows that deserts may have a larger role in offsetting carbon dioxide than previously thought. The results were published Sunday in Nature Climate Change

Beth Newingham, of the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources, has been working with a team of researchers from several universities, include Washington State University, to understand the effects of elevated carbon dioxide on the Mojave Desert, which is the driest desert in North America. The study looked at how soil and plants responded to 10 years of elevated carbon dioxide. Newingham, assistant professor in the department of forest, rangeland, and fire sciences, was a lead scientist on the above-ground plant portion of the experiment.

Most studies on elevated carbon dioxide focus on forests. The Nevada Desert FACE (Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment) Facility was the only FACE experiment conducted in a desert. This FACE study ran for 10 years in an undisturbed ecosystem, which provides unique insight into long-term effects of increased carbon emissions. Because of the importance of soil organisms in deserts, the researchers did not walk in the plots during those 10 years. 

“Because carbon dioxide emissions are increasing rapidly, it is important to know how our ecosystems will respond,” said Newingham. “It has long been known that forests may offset carbon dioxide through carbon storage, but now it seems deserts play a larger role.”

Initially scientists predicted that desert plants would increase their growth under elevated carbon dioxide more than other plants because it would save them water. However, Newingham found that although desert plants had changes in photosynthesis and growth in wet years, there was no long-term effect on plant growth and plant carbon after 10 years. Instead, carbon was stored in the desert soils. The scientists propose this is due to increased plant material decomposing in the soil and microbial action.

“Our study provides important data on how drylands respond to increased carbon emissions,” said Newingham. Most global models only include forests. Since deserts cover 47 percent of the land surface on Earth, it is important to include deserts into global carbon accounting.

The study was funded by the Department of Energy’s Terrestrial Carbon Processes Program and the National Science Foundation Ecosystem Studies Program. 


Jodi Walker
College of Natural Resources
(208) 885-2737

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