Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new study shows that the slimy creatures battle climate change. Here’s how to help.
Next time you spot a lowly worm writhing on the sidewalk, pick it up and ferry it back to some soil. These little critters may be our allies in the battle against climate change, a new Yale-led study reports.
The study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigated the relationship between microbial life and carbon dioxide emission.
Soil is filled with microbes that feast on decaying waste and release carbon. Worms chow down on these carbon-emitting microbes in the soil, decreasing the amount of emissions into the atmosphere.
The tiny creatures aren’t going to singlehandedly solve our carbon woes, but they can definitely help. That’s because those pesky microbes have a much greater impact than we might imagine. The study’s lead author, Thomas Crowther, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, explained to Al Jazeera America:
“Effectively the microbes that live in the soil are responsible for producing 10 times more carbon emissions than even humans have produced. That's the biggest flux of carbon into the atmosphere that there is on Earth."
The less squeamish of us can pitch in by experimenting with vermicomposting—compost piles stocked with a crew of voracious worms. You can do this in your backyard, on the fire escape, or even indoors, if you don’t mind sharing counter space with dirt dwellers. Some bins designed for this purpose, such as the Worm Factory, can hold as many as 6,000 worms, which are sold separately. Before you add them to the mix, set up the habitat with bedding made from dampened newspaper, shredded cardboard, and a bit of grit, such as crushed egg shells. Then, add in some fruit peels or rotten vegetables. The worms should have plenty of microbes to decimate.
Not interested in plunging your hands into a bin full of hungry annelids? A handful of cities, including Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, and New York, are also getting in on the action by collecting residents’ organic waste for composting.