Plant life is critical in combating climate change by absorbing and converting greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. For example, a tree can take more than a ton of carbon from the air and store it in its wood and roots throughout its life.
According to a new study published in Nature Geoscience, moss, the microscopic plants we often find on the ground or rocks, could be an important antidote to climate change.
The study, led by David Eldridge of the University of New South Wales in Australia and Manuel Delgado-Baquerizo of the Instituto de Recursos Naturales y Agrobiologa de Sevilla in Spain, found evidence that mosses have the potential to sequester an enormous amount of carbon. smash into the ground below.
Co-authors include University of Michigan forest ecologist Peter Reich, director of the Institute for Global Change Biology in the School for Environment and Sustainability.
Mosses sequester about 6.43 billion tons more carbon in the soil than barren patches of soil with no plants commonly found nearby in semi-arid regions around the world.
To put it in perspective, this is six times the annual global carbon emissions caused by land use change (e.g. deforestation, urbanization, mining, etc.) worldwide.
Mosses have both roots and leaves. However, their roots are not the same as those of vascular plants. Mosses, instead of traditional roots, contain specialized structures called rhizoids that act as root-like extensions, anchoring them to the soil surface.
To reach these conclusions, the research team of several dozen scientists from 16 countries examined soil samples from different ecosystems across every continent. They studied 23 variables related to biodiversity conservation, numerous ecosystem services and carbon storage.
They then calculated the contributions of moss and vascular plants such as trees to the 24 soil biodiversity and functional characteristics for all sites.
The study found that moss-covered soil contained, on average, higher levels of critical nutrients, faster decomposition of organic matter and fewer instances of soil-borne plant diseases than regular, moss-less soil.
Reich proposed an explanation similar to that of trees in forests in analyzing the mechanisms that allow moss to deliver its collection of soil biodiversity benefits.
He said, “Like forests, mosses stabilize the microclimates and physical environments below; moreover, they provide minerals and carbon to the soil and thus provide a better home for the soil microbiome than bare soil.
The general prevalence of Moss is one of its most amazing features. Mosses cover an area of more than 3.6 million square miles (9.4 million square kilometers), which is comparable in size to Canada or China.
This further underlines why moss can have a significant impact on soil biodiversity and services such as carbon sequestration.
More impressively, mosses can thrive in challenging environments where other plants struggle to survive. In this way they contribute to soil biodiversity in sandy or saline soils and areas with strongly variable rainfall.
The study emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive approach when considering nature’s role in tackling climate change.
Reich said, “These findings support the idea that we can use nature in different ways to combat climate change. Mosses are important because they show that even small plants can absorb and store carbon in harsh environments, just like large trees elsewhere. And small plants and larger trees do this all over the world.”
Reich suggested that future research should focus on understanding the significance of all forms of plants in carbon sequestration, not just mosses and trees.
Like trees in forests, mosses maintain the microclimate and physical conditions underneath, while also providing minerals and carbon to the soil.
Mosses can grow in harsh environments where other plants struggle, such as sandy or saline soils and locations with irregular rainfall. Future studies should focus on understanding the significance of all forms of plants in carbon sequestration, not just mosses and trees. This allows policy to optimize nature management, allowing plants to play the most protective role against climate change.
Reich said, “As a community of scientists, we need to better understand all vegetation on Earth – on land in wet and dry places, and warm and cold, as well as in water (i.e. coasts and open oceans) and their role in scrubbing carbon from the air, by understanding their respective contributions, we can shape policies to optimize the management of nature, allowing vegetation to play a maximum protective role against climate change.
The study was funded by the British Ecological Society.
- Eldridge, DJ, Guirado, E., Reich, PB et al. The global contribution of benthic lichens to ecosystem services. Natural Geosciences. DOI: 10.1038/s41561-023-01170-x