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Moss Emissions Could Unexpectedly Hasten Global Warming

Jul 27, 2015 07:51 AM EDT

Climatologists didn't see this one coming. It looks like mosses, lichens, and blue-green algae are all major players in the Earth's complex and often-confusing carbon cycle. Now, new research has revealed how these organisms regularly release some of the most intense greenhouse gasses known to man, demanding more attention be pointed their way.

Despite the fact that carbon dioxide (C02) is the greenhouse gas that's in all the headlines and on everyone's mind, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are two other gasses that climatologists have been keeping a close eye on. That's because these gases are up to 30 and 300 times (respectively) more efficient at trapping heat in Earth's atmosphere than C02 ever could be.

Past studies have revealed that organisms like trees and phytoplankton are major carbon sinks, helping to naturally mitigate overwhelming greenhouse gas emissions. However, researchers are still struggling to grasp just how much carbon the Earth regularly contends with, making it difficult for them to measure the efficiency of these sinks and make accurate predictions concerning the future of climate change.

That's why a team led by experts from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry have turned their attention to other organism for whom emissions remained uncertain.

"We wanted to find out two things: Firstly, we wanted to know whether cryptogamic covers (mosses, lichens, and algae) can emit N2O and CH4 at all. And secondly, what impact do climatic conditions have on the emission values," Katharina Lenhart, a researcher with the Institute for Plant Ecology at the Justus-Liebig University, explained in a statement. (Scroll to read on...)

To find their answers, Lenhart and her colleagues first observed 68 samples of different lichens and mosses from various climate regions. They recorded the emissions of these organisms under different environmental conditions, including temperature change, varied water quality and light exposure, and nitrogen fertilization levels. The results were recently published in the journal Global Change Biology.

So what did they find?

"The high release rates of nitrous oxide were remarkable," added Bettina Weber, who led the investigation.

She explained that, while "the methane emissions of cryptogamic covers were negligible on a global scale," the N20 results only grew more worrying as temperatures hiked.

"Generally, we could demonstrate that N20 and CH4 emissions strongly increase from temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius," Weber said.

She and her colleagues added that even if these emissions are natural, they may serve as an unconsidered 'vicious cycle' mechanism for hastening global warming.

Still, the scientists stress this is just the beginning of their work, and there is still much more to understand. Their next step will reportedly be to confirm their results in large field studies, potentially even adding subjects for study as they go.

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