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Underground networks of fungi are essential to preserve biodiversity and soil fertility. Around the world, they can spread for miles, but they are rarely noticed and as a result are highly threatened by human activities (agriculture, deforestation, urbanization, pollution) and climate change. That is why a new project, initiated by the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (or SPUN for the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks), aims to map all these networks, not only to better protect them, but also to improve its ability to store carbon dioxide.
These networks of mycorrhizal fungi are essential for the health of soils and vegetation: they act as true nutrient pathways for plants. In addition, they have been shown to play an important role in the global carbon cycle thanks to their ability to absorb CO2. “Mushroom webs support life on Earth. If trees are the ‘lungs’ of the planet, fungal networks are ‘circulatory systems’ ”, confirms Mark Tercek, former executive director of the Nature Conservancy and member of the SPUN governing body.
Additionally, there is growing evidence that particular fungal combinations can improve soil productivity, so protecting them is critical, according to soil scientists. Unfortunately, modern industrial agriculture seriously undermines the dynamics of trade between plants and mycorrhizal fungi, pouring large amounts of chemical fertilizers into soils and resorting to mechanical plowing which greatly damages established connections.
An unprecedented global exploration
“Right under our feet is an invaluable ally in mitigating climate change: vast hidden webs of fungi,” said Jeremy Grantham, a British investor who is financing the project to the tune of $ 3.5 million. In fact, every year, billions of tons of carbon dioxide flow from plants into fungal webs. However, these carbon sinks are not recognized. That is why scientists will try for the first time to map all the fungal networks in the world; This project will involve the collection of 10,000 samples.
In particular, specialists have identified “hot spots” that could greatly contribute to the fight against global warming. More precisely, the project team identified around ten “critical” areas: the Canadian tundra, the Mexican plateau, the high altitudes of South America, Morocco, the Western Sahara, the Negev desert in Israel, the steppes of Kazakhstan, the grasslands and high plains of Tibet, as well as the Russian taiga. These mycorrhizal fungal foci will be mapped as a priority. SPUN will carry out its first sampling mission with the Fungi Foundation in April 2022, in Patagonia; the collections will then continue for approximately 18 months.
Using the maps that will be generated, the scientists hope to identify the ecosystems facing the most urgent threats, in order to partner with local conservation organizations to try to create “conservation corridors” for these underground ecosystems. “Understanding underground fungal networks is essential to our efforts to protect the soil, on which life depends, before it is too late,” said renowned ethologist Jane Goodall, project advisor.
Mycorrhizal networks in forests are even more important when temperatures rise, due to their ability to provide water to host plants; Fungi can help plants withstand extreme droughts. The same goes for crops: without their fungal partners, they require more chemical inputs and are more vulnerable to drought, soil erosion, pests and pathogens.
A more than essential conservation effort
Mycorrhizal fungi use carbon to build networks in the soil, which form symbiotic associations with plants. The fungi connect to the roots of the plants and provide them with all the necessary nutrients. For example, some species of fungi are known to provide 80% of essential phosphorus to their host plants. According to SPUN, globally, the total length of fungal mycelium in the top ten centimeters of the soil exceeds 450 trillion kilometers, or about half the width of our galaxy!
Previous estimates suggest that 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide would flow into mushroom networks each year, or more than half of all energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021. But the figure could be up to 3 times higher if all types of fungal networks were taken into account, scientists now estimate. While rainforests are widely considered the Earth’s main carbon sink, it turns out that high-altitude underground ecosystems absorb 13 times more carbon.
Currently, extreme temperatures, drought and floods threaten the ability of global fungal networks to move nutrients and store carbon. Furthermore, disturbances resulting from climate degradation, such as massive forest fires, destroy plants and underground fungal networks. However, after a fire it can take more than a decade for soil microorganisms to fully reconstitute. Therefore, current trends suggest that more than 90% of terrestrial soils will be degraded by 2050.
In protecting the sous-sol de l’expansion des terres cultivées, it is possible to avoid the release of 41 million tonnes of CO2 stocked in the sun in the course of 30 prochaines années – which represents 8 annual CO2 emissions from United States. Through its efforts to map and exploit this threatened but essential resource for life on Earth, SPUN is today opening a new chapter in global conservation.
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