A University of Stirling scientist is taking the lead on pioneering research into how global warming is impacting ecosystems in the Arctic and Scottish Highlands.

Professor in Ecosystem and Ecology Philip Wookey will be working alongside investigators from the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh. 

Professor Wookey said that arctic landscapes are changing quickly as temperatures continue to rise: Trees are growing in areas where it had not previously been possible.

Although more trees help to draw carbon out of the atmosphere, high-latitude soils are typically carbon-rich. Professor Wookey said this is a problem if the new vegetation causes the soil to release its carbon. 

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He and his team will be conducting experiments in Sweden and the Scottish Highlands to determine how new vegetation is impacting the mycorrhizosphere - the habitat in soil where plant roots are surrounded by fungus – and whether that could cause more carbon to leak into the atmosphere.

Trees are typically considered a way to fight climate change due to their ability to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere.

But Professor Wookey worries this may not prove to be the case in the Arctic.


He said: “Although challenging to investigate, we cannot overlook below-ground processes if we are to understand net carbon budgets on timescales relevant to the Climate Emergency.

“We hypothesise that associated changes in the mycorrhizosphere could, paradoxically, result in net losses, rather than gains, of soil carbon. By applying ground-breaking techniques, we will transform our understanding of this process and the fundamental new knowledge gained will significantly improve regional and global modelling of climate change.”

Dr Thomas Parker, from the James Hutton Institute, added: “There is growing evidence from the boreal forest that a small, but very important group of mycorrhizal fungi are centrally important for the carbon balance of forest soils.

“It is largely unknown as to what will happen when these fungi colonise the tundra. Filling in this gap could help better predict climate feedbacks.” 

The project comes off the back of an announcement from the World Meteorological Association that there is a 66 per cent chance of the planet passing the 1.5C global warming threshold by 2027.

This threshold is a measurement of how much the climate has warmed above pre-industrial levels.

Researchers believe that passing that threshold will make it harder for humans to adapt to the climate. It could also leave the planet more susceptible to natural disasters, food scarcity and other issues associated with climate change.

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Professors Wookey and Parker will be joined by Andy Taylor from the James Hutton Institute; Dr Lorna Street from the University of Edinburgh; Dr Mark Garnett from the University of Glasgow; and Dr Karina Engelbrecht Clemmensen and Prof Björn Lindahl from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

The team of researchers received £1 million in funding for the project. Professor Wookey and his colleagues represent one of 44 projects that received a share of a £25 million government investment. Almost £800,000 of Professor Wookey’s funding comes from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of NERC said the investment should allow for groundbreaking discoveries.

He said: “By supporting high-risk, high-reward environmental science, we are harnessing the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system to tackle large-scale, complex challenges.”