A fundamental challenge of modern environmental science is to understand how earth systems will respond to climate change. A parallel challenge in biology is to understand how information encoded in organismal genes manifests as biogeochemical processes at ecosystem-to-global scales. These grand challenges intersect in the need to understand the global carbon (C) cycle, which is both mediated by biological processes and a key driver of climate through the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). A key aspect of these challenges is the C cycle implications of the predicted dramatic shrinkage in northern permafrost in the coming century. Large releases of C from thawing permafrost to the atmosphere are plausible, and a strong potential positive feedback to global warming, but little is known about the controls on such release. What is the interplay of this permafrost “old” C with “new” extant plant-derived C, specifically how do microbial communities interact with these chemical structures in the decomposition/preservation of organic C across a thaw gradient?
Proposer: Virginia Rich, The Ohio State University