Hot topics in global warming

Day in and day out, the U.S. population is bombarded with controversial opinions and claims about global warming.

As with many mainstream scientific issues that implicate mankind of wrongdoing, there appears to be a split in popular belief. There are even those who simply have no desire to acknowledge different arguments.

Some people are of the opinion that global warming is a hoax generated by the scientific community. Others have concluded that global warming is an entirely natural process that the earth experiences in cycles (and is in no way, or is insignificantly influenced, by human action). The third hypothesis is that global warming is a natural process accelerated by man-made industry.

By what is a seemingly inevitable process, most people find themselves caught somewhere between these three schools of thought with no idea as to what is fact or fiction.

Global warming is literally defined as “the rise in the average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.” It is a process that has been observed since the late 19th century and is under scrupulous investigation by a congregate of the world’s leading scientific institutions, including UC Davis.

The William Horwath Biogeochemistry and Nutrient Cycling Lab at UC Davis is focusing on aspects of global warming influenced by soil-dwelling microorganisms.

“CO2 (the main greenhouse gas) concentration today is almost double what it has been for the last 600,000 years until about 100 years ago, and the increase of its concentration is accelerating,” said Martin Burger, a researcher at the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, and a member of the Horwath Lab team. “The changes occurring in many ecosystems because of global warming will be dramatic. Climate change will also impact how and where we grow food on the planet. In some areas, it will be very difficult to live.”

This study also investigated the role of ammonia-based fertilizers and the process of nitrification in the fashioning of the highly potent greenhouse gases nitric and nitrous oxide. UC Davis researchers found that nitric and nitrous oxide production, via the process of nitrification, increases with decreasing oxygen concentration.

Nitrification is a metabolic process carried out by microorganisms that live in soil-based environments. It was previously believed that as the availability of oxygen in the soil decreased, the process of nitrification (and the resulting production of the greenhouse gases nitric and nitrous oxide) would decrease in similar fashion. However, UC Davis researchers were able to amend this previous assumption.

“The main findings of this study show that nitrous oxide (N2O) and nitric oxide (NO) production via ammonia oxidation pathways increased as oxygen (O2) concentrations decreased,” said Xia Zhu, a researcher in the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in an email interview.

The results of the team’s research pointed to some areas of agricultural practice that have a particularly heavy influence on these soil-based microorganisms.

“Our results show that we must pay more attention to the soil conditions when nitrogen fertilizers (most are ammonia based) are applied,” Burger said. “We also found that some fertilizers result in more nitrous oxide than others.”

UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources researcher Timothy Doane asserted that the study conducted would potentially help to set standards for what soil conditions, fertilizers and industrial practices should be utilized in order to decrease the production and dispensation of such volatile nitrogenous compounds.

“[This study] may help to reinforce exactly what soil conditions favor more or less emission of nitrous oxide and nitric oxide, as well as why this happens,” Doane said in an email interview. “Management decisions may then be modified to take this into consideration.”

Ultimately, regardless of whether or not industry contributes to the process of global warming, it is crucial that the scientific community continues to seek the answer to two very pressing questions. First, does human-derived industry in fact contribute to the process of global warming? And second, how can industrial practices be altered in ways that diminish the potential impact these industries may have on global warming?

To the groups that acknowledge the reality of global climate change, this study will help to enlighten potentially contributing industries on the importance of soil and fertilizer management. In doing so, these industries can begin to take measures to mitigate any possible impact they may have on global warming.

EMILY SEFEROVICH can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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