/ Modified dec 15, 2015 10:09 a.m.

Study: Warming May Affect Microbes, Hurting Soil Fertility

Research led by NAU scientists scanned conditions in 80 dryland ecosystems around globe.

drylands spotlight Desert scene near Escalante, Utah. (PHOTO: U.S. Geological Survey)

By Melissa Sevigny, Arizona Science Desk Listen:

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Deserts like the American Southwest are expected to get drier as the climate warms, and that could be bad news for soil fertility, says a Northern Arizona University researcher.

That word comes from a study that is the first to look at soil microbes in drylands all over the world. The researchers collected soil samples from 80 dryland ecosystems, on every continent except Antarctica. It found bacteria and fungi were less numerous and less diverse in drier climates.

“Not only are plants and animals going to respond to climate change, but it seems that also microbes that live in the soil would too,” NAU soil ecologist Matthew Bowker said. “You would expect it, but here it is, loud and clear.”

Bowker said drylands cover 40 percent of the Earth’s landmass, and climate models predict they will expand. If microbial diversity diminishes in these regions, soil will become less fertile, and the effects will ripple up the food chain.

Bowker said his next project will be to study livestock grazing in drylands with the international team.

The Arizona Science Desk is a collaboration of public broadcasting entities in the state, including Arizona Public Media.

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