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Considering Microbial Processes in Models for Understanding Climate Change

Stephanie Kivlin, assistant professor in the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is part of a colloquium of scholars who published a report examining the challenges of explicitly including microbial processes into Earth system models to improve model projections.

The American Academy of Microbiology, an honorific leadership group and scientific think tank within the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), released Microbes in Models: Steps for Integrating Microbes into Earth System Models for Understanding Climate Change, June 5, 2023.

Climate models help scientists understand current environmental changes and make projections for Earth’s future, which can inform society’s responses to the negative effects of climate change. Microbes will also influence climate change by driving biogeochemical cycles through the consumption and production of greenhouse gases. Including microbial processes into Earth system models can improve model projections.

“We mostly do not know how microbiomes will respond to global change over the next century,” Kivlin said. “As a leader of the ‘Novel Impacts on Microbiomes’ section of this report, I discussed how distributions and life cycles of microorganisms may shift in a warmer world. These lines of research are central to the Kivlin Lab and are focal areas of several grants and PhD dissertations in our group.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently reported “climate change impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage.” With an estimated 3.3 to 3.6 billion people living in areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change, Earth system models help refine the complexity of climate change into more manageable terms to guide planning strategies and mitigation actions to tackle the pressing threat of climate change to humanity.

However, fully understanding the feedback between climate change and microbes, and then including those processes in Earth system models, is a major challenge. The report outlines the top 10 challenges that must be overcome to better incorporate microbial processes into Earth system models. Major research challenges include:

  • Tradeoffs in model complexity.
  • Identifying microbial functional groups.
  • Temporal and spatial scale of microbes versus global models.
  • Data harmonization.

This report is the outcome of the colloquium convened by the Academy in December 2022. The event brought together more than 25 experts from both microbiology and climate modeling fields who provided multifaceted perspectives and insights. This colloquium is part of the Academy’s five-year Climate Change & Microbes Scientific Portfolio focused on increasing the scientific understanding about climate change and microbes, informing climate change policies and driving market innovations.

Learn more about the impact of microbes on climate change on the American Society for Microbiology’s Microbes and Climate Change resource page. 

The American Society for Microbiology is one of the largest professional societies dedicated to the life sciences and is composed of 30,000 scientists and health practitioners. ASM’s mission is to promote and advance the microbial sciences. 

ASM advances the microbial sciences through conferences, publications, certifications, educational opportunities and advocacy efforts. It enhances laboratory capacity around the globe through training and resources. It provides a network for scientists in academia, industry and clinical settings. Additionally, ASM promotes a deeper understanding of the microbial sciences to diverse audiences.