Studying soil's role in climate change

Biology Ph.D. student Nanette Raczka is investigating how soils store carbon in ecosystems around the world to understand the impact of climate change.

MORGANTOWN— A West Virginia University graduate student is investigating how soils store carbon in ecosystems around the world to understand the impact of climate change.

Biology Ph.D. student Nanette Raczka’s summer research efforts will begin in a seasonally dry tropical forest in Gaunacaste, Costa Rica. Raczka received a grant from the Explorers Club Washington Group to study how microbes in the soil cycle carbon under periods of drought.

“This is important in understanding carbon cycling because key microbial traits drive the amount of carbon that can be stored in the soil or released as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere,” Raczka said.

The amount of carbon stored in soil is more than the total amount that is held in the Earth’s vegetation and atmosphere combined, making soil a key player in mitigating rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, she explained. 

After traveling to Costa Rica, Raczka will head to the coastal wetlands of Edgewater, Maryland. Here she will work alongside Patrick Megonigal, the associate director of research at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, as part of the intensive, 10-week Smithsonian Institution Fellowship Program.

By measuring carbon use efficiency and turnover with isotope labeling, Raczka will observe how the soils in freshwater wetlands respond to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  

“These marshes are used to having a diurnal tide cycle, where it has one high and one low tide every lunar day. As the tide leaves, the soil is exposed to oxygen. The freshwater is there, and it’s not as salty,” Raczka said. “With rising sea levels, these wetlands are going to be inundated with saltwater.”

According to Raczka, the above ground traits of these wetlands are frequently studied, but there is a significant gap in understanding in how microbes below the ground will respond.

“It’s going to be fun to discover how well I can plan and perform an experiment in a different lab,” Raczka said. “This is new to me, but it’s also exciting because it’s adding another ecosystem type that I can observe.”

Other collaborators on this research are Ember Morrisey, assistant professor of environmental microbiology in WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and Eddie Brzostek, assistant professor of forest ecology and ecosystem modeling.

“Nanette’s work this summer is highly transformative. She is using state-of-the-art techniques to shed light on how microbes eat soil carbon in two understudied environments,” Brzostek said. “She has brought me out of my own scientific comfort zone by building a unique collaboration with Ember. With Ember’s mentorship, she has been able to probe deeper into the role soil microbes play in regulating climate.” o

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