For thousands of years, the northern Andes Mountains have acted as a carbon sink, preserving organic matter as thick soil. As the planet warms, what will happen to all that carbon? This past summer, Carolina undergraduates traveled to Ecuador to take a closer look.

Moss-covered molehills pepper the landscape, each a different shade of autumn. Some are mustard yellow, others evergreen. Upon closer inspection, petite red buds 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.

UNC 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.

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Originally published Oct. 3, 2019.