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How Digging Holes Across Texas Could Help Us Fight Climate Change

Researchers collect soil samples to measure how much CO2 is being emitted by microbes.
Courtesy of Christine Hawkes
Researchers collect soil samples to measure how much CO2 is being emitted by microbes.

Christine Hawkes says her work isn’t all that glamorous.

“Sometimes when people ask me what my job is, I say 'digging holes,'” she says. "You know? It’s a lot of what I do is just digging up soil.”

But, Hawkes, an ecologist at UT Austin, says it’s not really the soil she’s after. It’s the microbes in the soil.

Microbes consume and emit CO2, a major greenhouse gas. Add up all the world’s microbes and you’re talking a lot of CO2. The amount going into the earth and coming out usually stays pretty well balanced, which is why Hawkes says she studies it.

“Any small change in that amount of carbon could have a really big effect on what’s happening in the atmosphere,” she says.

Hawkes and her colleagues take some dirt back to the lab and then bring some to another part of the state with historically different climate conditions. South Texas, for example, is historically drier than Central Texas.

In the lab, they test how much CO2 comes from the soil at different moisture levels. In the field, they watch how it reacts to its new environment.

Their question: “What happens when you take … soil from a dry area or soil from a wet area and you subject them to the same degree of climate change?” she says. “Will they respond the same? Or does that history somehow effect what their future response will be?”

Their conclusion: Soil from drier parts of the world emits less CO2 even when it's exposed to wetter conditions.

“That was because microbes from wetter regions were more sensitive to that moisture,” Hawkes says, “essentially they could be more active in response to the same amount of moisture.”

This knowledge could be essential in understanding how much more CO2 will be released into the atmosphere from the earth as climate change disrupts historical weather patterns.

It could also help scientists learn how to encourage microbes to hold more CO2 in the ground.

That might sound far out. But some argue that if global leaders won’t make policy to reduce emissions. That type of geo-engineering could be the next best hope to battle climate change.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.