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New atlas underlines significant role of northern soils in climate change

04 May 2010 European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn will today at the European Parliament launch a Soil Atlas of the world's northernmost regions, where more than half the carbon present in the Earth's soils is stored. She will simultaneously inaugurate an exhibition on the work of the Commission's Joint Research Centre, which produced the Atlas. It covers regions above the latitude of 50° N, which represent 16% of global land surface. So far, the public perception focuses on the melting of arctic ice as one of the indicators for climate change. However, 1700 billion tons of organic carbon are kept in the soils of the northern permafrost region and their thawing could lead to substantial release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and would further increase global warming. The Soil Atlas of the Northern Circumpolar Region is the first compilation providing all the available information on this carbon pool as well as other important data on northern soils. The Atlas will therefore provide a valuable scientific input to climate change and sustainable development models.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science said: "This atlas is a unique source of information for researchers, policy makers, teachers and the general public on the characteristics of northern soil and raises awareness of its environmental importance and global significance. It shows the possible impacts of climate change on permafrost-affected soils and explains the critical role that they play in the global climate and carbon cycles."
Organic carbon in soils is the biggest terrestrial carbon pool and presents an important factor in future climate change projections. Permanently frozen grounds in the northern polar region, together with extensive peatlands, ensure that those soils are a significant carbon sink.

These important carbon stores need special attention because the boreal and arctic regions that house them are expected to warm more rapidly than the rest of the world. Similarly to what happens when you pull the electricity plug of a freezer, decomposition of organic matter starts with increased temperatures and leads, in the case of soil, to emissions of CO2 and methane. This new atlas is a comprehensive source of data, which will allow scientists and policymakers to understand whether there is a back coupling effect on global warming and underpin the development of policies to protect the arctic carbon sinks and thus our climate.

The 144-page atlas is the result of a three-year collaborative project with partners from northern EU countries, as well as Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the USA and Russia, and gives a detailed overview of circumpolar soil resources, which are also relevant to agriculture, forest management, water management, land use planning, infrastructure, housing and energy transport networks. In a clear style, the atlas describes the origin and major characteristics of the different soil types that can be found in this environment.

The Soil Atlas will be launched by Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn today (4 May) at the European Parliament, during the inauguration of the "Science meets policy" JRC exhibition. The event takes place at the stand located on the third floor of the Spinelli building. Leading JRC scientists will be on-hand at the stand from today until May 6 to demonstrate and discuss with journalists and other visitors how the research work of the JRC supports EU decision-makers from the conception to the assessment of EU policies.

http://eusoils.jrc.ec.europa.eu/library/maps/Circumpolar/index.html

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