The plants, microbes and animals that inhabit natural ecosystems are responsible for providing most ecosystem functions that are so necessary to human survival and wellbeing. In addition, these organisms drive the carbon cycle and influence global climate conditions. Human-driven changes in the composition and physiology of these organisms can alter the carbon cycle. This drives feedbacks that could drastically enhance or dampen the rate of climate change. In order to generate a robust understanding of climate change, and devise effective strategies for combatting it, we must understand how changes in biological communities will alter Earth system dynamics over the rest of this century.
We examine human-driven changes in the composition and physiology of soil organisms and plants will alter the carbon cycle and the climate over the rest of this century.
How will changes in the functioning of soil communities alter the global climate system
The soil represents the largest terrestrial carbon store. Through the activity of soil organisms, the soil emits 10 times more carbon than humans each year. This is a process which is balanced by an approximately equivalent uptake of carbon via plants. However, if land use or climate change alter the activity of soil organisms, they could drastically enhance or dampen the rate of climate change. We aim to generate a mechanistic understanding of future changes in the physiology (see 6,7,9), composition (see 7,19,20), and activity (see 8,15,21) of soil organisms over the rest of this century, to improve our understanding of the biological feedbacks to climate change (see 8,15). This research will also help us to understand how we can manage and restore healthy soils in the fight against biodiversity loss, poverty and climate change (see 15,17).
How will changes in the global forest system alter the global climate system
Forest trees cover over 1/3 of the land surface, and they are prominent determinants of global carbon cycling and the climate. Deforestation and climate change threaten forests, and alter their capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. We make use of the first global database of forest inventory plots to understand the current and future changes to the global forest system (see 10,14,19), and how they will impact atmospheric carbon concentrations and the climate (see 10,13,14). This will also help us to understand how we can manage and restore forests in the fight against biodiversity loss, poverty and climate change (see 10,13).