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The impact of climate change can be felt across the world, even places where humans are nowhere to be found.  In barren, arctic ecosystems, it’s started to create more shrub vegetation.  A study at Lund University in Sweden has shown that organisms like bacteria and fungi are triggered to break down particularly nutritious parts of shrubbery, while the total amount of decomposition has been steadily reducing.  Even though it’s caused by climate change, this could actually inhibit global warming.

Much of the carbon and nitrogen on Earth is stored in arctic ecosystems.  The ground, aptly called “permafrost”, is permanently frozen, although climate change causes it to heat up.  Researchers from Lund University and the University of Copenhagen and the Centre for Permafrost (CENPERM) have conducted joint field studies outside Abisko in the extreme north of Sweden.  Here, they’ve studied what happens to the decomposition of organic material as the climate starts to get warmer.  As the region gets warmer, more shrubs start growing, as opposed to the moss that typically grows in these regions and is difficult to break down.  These shrubs have leaves and roots, which are easy to break down and secrete sugar.  The researchers have found that decomposition organisms like bacteria and fungi are triggered to look for nutrient-rich organic materials which contain more nitrogen, while overall decomposition is reduced.

When nutrient-rich material decomposes, the nutrient-poor part of the organic material gets enriched, which most likely causes the amount of carbon to increase.  Current climate models don’t consider the connection between increased shrub vegetation due to ongoing climate change and soil becoming less nutritious.  It will be interesting to see how this will affect the soil carbon turnover in the long term, and this research could be a major step in future climate models.

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