Environmental Sustainability

CATEGORIES: Uncategorized

By Steve Jones

The key is looking underground

Iowa State biologist Kirsten Hofmockel.

Scientists worldwide are concerned with the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Unprecedented high levels of human-made and naturally occurring carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane are, says the science community, increasing global temperatures.

Iowa State biologist Kirsten Hofmockel believes the way to help our atmosphere above us is to look below us. Hofmockel studies the billions of invisible microorganisms in the soil and their interactions with plants.

"At the most basic biological level, microorganisms are key to determining whether carbon and nitrogen stay in the soil, or go into the atmosphere," she explained. "It’s sort of mind blowing that single-cell organisms can affect the global climate."

Hofmockel is part of a new federally funded climate change study in a carbon-rich peat bog in north central Minnesota. Scientists will artificially raise temperatures inside large climate "chambers" in the boreal forest.

"We’re doing climate manipulation experiments to see how the forest will respond to climate change," Hofmockel said. She aims to understand how microbial communities control ecosystem responses to large increases in carbon dioxide and temperature.

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Cover story: Seeking a Sustainable Balance