The Dirty Work of Climate Change

The public’s worries about climate change most often include extreme weather patterns, damage to wildlife, and drought, according to the Pew Research Center.

However, people aren’t often concerned about soil, says Tania Burgos-Hernández, a doctoral student in environment and natural resources. Yes, the ground you walk on every day plays a valuable role in climate change, because it stores and releases carbon.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas — its presence in the atmosphere traps heat and contributes to global temperature rise. Therefore, the storage of carbon in soils and their potentially harmful disruption by human activity has consequences on the ecosystem.

Burgos-Hernández (photo, top right), whose specialization is soil science, is analyzing urban soils on the Ohio State campus to determine their ability to store carbon.

“Soil particles surround organic matter and form clumps, which act as a barrier from further microbial decay,” Burgos-Hernández says. “When soils are disturbed, these aggregates break apart, and carbon can be digested and released from the soil as a gas.”

To analyze the soils, she is collecting multiple samples from 150 soil cores and three pits dug on campus. Independent contractors, with university approval, have already opened the pits on West Campus, and soil cores will be collected later this year. Burgos-Hernández will thoroughly analyze physical properties such as color, texture and structure, as well as chemical and biological properties to determine carbon, metals and other factors (photo, bottom right).

Burgos-Hernández says she hopes to find relatively undisturbed soil at Ohio State to use as a baseline and show how disturbances elsewhere might increase the university’s carbon footprint.

“A sustainable use of the soil will maintain or enhance soil functions,” she says, “such as serving as a medium for plant growth and soil organisms, regulating hydrology, sequestering carbon, and absorbing chemical compounds.”

The Office of Energy and Environment funded her initial research during 2016. The research process is lengthy and expensive, she says, but she will most likely complete it this summer.

Because Ohio State is one of the largest universities in the U.S., she says, her research could set an example for other universities to conserve their soils.

“I want decision makers to take this research into consideration,” she says, “when they’re thinking about being a sustainable university.”

Written by Carlee Frank, student communications assistant