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Soil carbon pools and world life zones


Soil organic carbon in active exchange with the atmosphere constitutes approximately two-thirds of the carbon in terrestrial ecosystems1,2. The relatively large size and long residence time of this pool (of the order of 1,200 yr) make it a potentially important sink for carbon released to the atmosphere by fossil fuel combustion; however, in many cases, human disturbance has caused a decrease in soil carbon storage3,4. Various recent estimates place the global total of soil carbon between 700 (ref. 2) and 2,946 × 1015 g (ref. 5) with several intermediate estimates: 1,080 (ref. 1), 1,392 (ref. 6), 1,456 (ref. 3), and 2,070 × 1015g (ref. 7). Schlesinger's3 estimate seems to be based on the most extensive data base (200 observations, some of which are mean values derived from large studies in particular areas) and is widely cited in carbon cycle studies. In addition to estimating the world soil carbon pool, it is important to establish the relationships between the geographical distribution of soil carbon and climate, vegetation, human development and other factors as a basis for assessing the influence of changes in any of these factors on the global carbon cycle. Our analysis of 2,700 soil profiles, organized on a climate basis using the Holdridge life-zone classification system8, indicates relationships between soil carbon density and climate, a major soil forming factor. Soil carbon density generally increases with increasing precipitation, and there is an increase in soil carbon with decreasing temperature for any particular level of precipitation. When the potential evapotranspiration equals annual precipitation, soil carbon density9 is 10 kg m−2, exceptions to this being warm temperate and subtropical soils. Based on recent estimates of the areal extent of major ecosystem complexes9,10 which correspond well with climatic life zones, the global soil organic carbon pool is estimated to be 1,395 × 1015g.

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Post, W., Emanuel, W., Zinke, P. et al. Soil carbon pools and world life zones. Nature 298, 156–159 (1982).

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