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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Research project: Transitioning to a forested planet

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How the Earth's soils responded to the first forests.

A palaeo-equatorial Devonian lycopod forest in Spitsbergen
Lycopod forest in Spitsbergen

The world's first forests appeared in the Devonian some 350 million years ago. This changes soils into biogeochemical factories with the weathering of minerals and release of mineral nutrients. What impact did this release have on the Earth's biogeochemical cycles?

Aims

The co-evolution and geographical spread of trees and deep-rooting systems is widely proposed to represent the 'Devonian engine' of global change that drove the weathering of soil minerals and biogeochemical cycling of elements to exert a major influence on the Earth's atmospheric CO2 history. If correct, this paradigm suggests the evolutionary appearance of forested ecosystems through the Devonian (418-360 Myr ago) constitutes the single most important biotic feedback on the geochemical carbon cycle to emerge during the entire 540 Myr duration of the Phanaerozoic. Crucially, no link has yet been established between the evolutionary advance of trees and their geochemical impacts on palaeosols. Direct evidence that one has affected the other is still awaited, largely because of the lack of cross-disciplinary investigations to date.

Our proposal addresses this high level 'earth system science' challenge. The overarching objective is to provide a mechanistic understanding of how the evolutionary rise of deep-rotting forests intensified weathering and pedogenesis that constitute the primary biotic feedbacks on the long-term C-cycle. Our central hypothesis is that the evolutionary advance of trees left geochemical effects detectable in palaeosols as forested ecosystems increased the quantity and depth of chemical energy transported into the soil through roots, mycorrhizal fungi and litter. This intensified soil acidification, increased the strength of isotopic and elemental enrichment in surface soil horizons, enhanced the weathering of Ca-Si and Ca-P minerals, and the formation of pedogenic clays, leading to long-term sequestration of atmospheric CO2 through the formation of marine carbonates with the liberated terrestrial Ca.

We will investigate this research hypothesis by obtaining and analysing well-preserved palaeosol profiles from a time sequence of localities in the eastern North America through the critical Silurian-Devonian interval that represents Earth's transition to a forested planet. These palaeosol sequences will then be subjected to targeted geochemical, clay mineralogical and palaeontological analyses. This will allow, for the first time, the rooting structures of mixed and monospecific Mid-Devonian forests to be directly linked to palaeosol weathering profiles obtained by drilling replicate unweathered profiles. Weathering by these forests will be compared with the 'control case' - weathering by pre-forest, early vascular land plants with diminutive/shallow rooting systems from Silurian and lower Devonian localities. These sites afford us the previously unexploited ability to characterize the evolution of plant-root-soil relationships during the critical Silurian-Devonian interval, whilst at the same time controlling for the effects of palaeogeography and provenance on palaeosol development. Applying geochemical analyses targeted at elements and isotopes that are strongly concentrated by trees at the surface of contemporary soils, and which show major change in abundance through mineral weathering under forests, provides a powerful new strategy to resolve and reconstruct the intensity and depth of weathering and pedogenesis at different stages in the evolution of forested ecosystems.

The project is tightly focused on “improving current knowledge of the interaction between the evolution of life and the Earth”, which represents one of the three high level challenges within NERC's Earth System Science Theme.

Key Contacts

Professor John Marshall

PhDs and Other Opportunities

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Related research groups

Palaeoceanography and Palaeoclimate
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