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Moss-covered molehills pepper the landscape, each a different shade of autumn. Some are mustard yellow, others evergreen. Upon closer inspection, petite redbuds peep through the growth while spindly, fingerlike plants called lycophytes grow long and tall on the mounds’ surface. It’s as if a coral reef was scooped up from the ocean, lifted 14,000 feet into the sky, and plopped on top of a mountain.
Carolina students leap from one mossy hump to another, occasionally overshooting their mark and slipping into the muddy waters in between. As they stop to catch their breath, quickly exhausted from the high altitude, they drop a sensor into one of the small pools to measure carbon. Between measurements, they look up to admire the dusty white peaks of Antisana, the fourth-highest volcano in Ecuador. Just behind it sits Cotopaxi, once thought to be the highest summit in the world and now one of South America’s most active volcanoes, having erupted more than 50 times since 1738.
Home to 27 volcanoes, Ecuador has accumulated organic matter for thousands of years, as volcanic soils accrue more carbon than any other ecosystem. Called a páramo , this type of landscape is found in the northern Andes Mountains. It’s a tropical environment, but because of the high elevation, the temperature remains low and the decomposition of organic matter slows. Scientists call locations like this carbon sinks — places of long-term carbon storage.
“The carbon content per unit area of soil in this area of the Andes Mountains is among the […]