What’s Going On Here?

Scientists have come up with a plan to save an “invaluable ally” in the climate crisis – sprawling underground networks of fungi that absorb and store carbon dioxide. The new project, from the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), will map the mysterious fungal web for the first time, helping scientists locate those most under threat.

What Does This Mean?

Fungal networks, which help recycle nutrients and lock up CO2 in soil, are unimaginably vast. In the top 10 cm of soil around the world, their total length is more than 450 quadrillion kilometres. That’s about half the width of the Milky Way! 

But despite their size, we know very little about them. To help us learn more, SPUN explorers will be collecting 10,000 samples over the next 18 months to compile a giant map of fungal hotspots around the world.

The project’s in good hands too. It’s being guided by a team of eminent advisors, including conservationist Jane Goodall and authors Michael Pollan and Merlin Sheldrake, while billionaire financier and climate advocate Jeremy Grantham has injected it with £2.6m.

Why Should We Care?

It’s estimated that five billion tons of CO2 flow into fungal networks each year, equal to more than half of all energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021. Stored safely underground, those emissions can’t add to more global heating, making the networks a vital tool in the fight against climate change.

But like other “carbon sinks”, such as rainforests and peatlands, fungal networks face a fragile future. Agricultural expansion, pollution, urbanisation and deforestation are tearing them up. If we carry on regardless, we could degrade more than 90% of the Earth’s soil – also home to 25% of all species on the planet – by 2050.

Be Curious!

Interested in SPUN’s work? Learn how you can support it here.

Fungal networks do more than just store carbon: they also help trees communicate. Learn more in the film Fantastic Fungi, available on Netflix.

Read Merlin Sheldrake’s awe-inspiring book on fungi – Entangled Life.

From the Curious Earth archives: Why soils are underrated and disappearing

Image credit: Victor Caldas