Where Does Charcoal, or Black Carbon, in Soils Go?
Scientists have uncovered one of nature’s long-kept secrets—the true fate of charcoal in the world’s soils. The ability to determine the fate of charcoal is critical to knowledge of the global carbon budget, which in turn can help understand and mitigate climate change.
However, until now, researchers only had scientific guesses about what happens to charcoal once it’s incorporated into soil. They believed it stayed there.
Surprisingly, most of these researchers were wrong.
The findings of a new study that examines the result of charcoal once it is deposited into the soil are outlined in a paper published this week in the journal Science. The international team of researchers was led by scientists Rudolf Jaffe of Florida International University and Thorsten Dittmar of the German Max Planck Society.
"Most scientists thought charcoal was resistant," says Jaffe. "They believed that once it was incorporated into soils, it stayed there. But if that were the case, soils would be black."
Charcoal, or black carbon, is a residue generated by combustion including wildfires and the burning of fossil fuels. When charcoal forms, it is usually deposited into the soil.
"From a chemical perspective, no one really thought it dissolved, but it does," Jaffe says. "It doesn’t accumulate for a long time. It’s exported into wetlands and rivers, eventually making its way to the oceans."
It all started with a strange finding in the Everglades.