Carbon losses from all soils across England and Wales 1978–2003


More than twice as much carbon is held in soils as in vegetation or the atmosphere1, and changes in soil carbon content can have a large effect on the global carbon budget. The possibility that climate change is being reinforced by increased carbon dioxide emissions from soils owing to rising temperature is the subject of a continuing debate2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. But evidence for the suggested feedback mechanism has to date come solely from small-scale laboratory and field experiments and modelling studies2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. Here we use data from the National Soil Inventory of England and Wales obtained between 1978 and 2003 to show that carbon was lost from soils across England and Wales over the survey period at a mean rate of 0.6% yr-1 (relative to the existing soil carbon content). We find that the relative rate of carbon loss increased with soil carbon content and was more than 2% yr-1 in soils with carbon contents greater than 100 g kg-1. The relationship between rate of carbon loss and carbon content is irrespective of land use, suggesting a link to climate change. Our findings indicate that losses of soil carbon in England and Wales—and by inference in other temperate regions—are likely to have been offsetting absorption of carbon by terrestrial sinks.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Changes in soil organic carbon contents across England and Wales between 1978 and 2003.
Figure 2: Rates of change in soil organic carbon content, grouped by soil type and land use.
Figure 3: Rates of change in soil organic carbon content, grouped by original carbon contents and indicated land uses.


  1. 1

    Batjes, N. H. Total carbon and nitrogen in the soils of the world. Eur. J. Soil Sci. 47, 151–163 (1996)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Jenkinson, D. S., Adams, D. E. & Wild, A. Model estimates of CO2 emissions from soil in response to global warming. Nature 351, 304–306 (1991)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Cao, M. K. & Woodward, F. I. Dynamic responses of terrestrial ecosystem carbon cycling to global climate change. Nature 393, 249–252 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Giardina, C. P. & Ryan, M. G. Evidence that decomposition rates of organic carbon in mineral soil do not vary with temperature. Nature 404, 858–861 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Cox, P. M., Betts, R. A., Jones, C. D., Spall, S. A. & Totterdell, I. J. Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model. Nature 408, 184–187 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Davidson, E. A., Trumbore, S. E. & Amundson, R. Soil warming and organic carbon content. Nature 408, 789–790 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Fang, C., Smith, P., Moncrieff, J. B. & Smith, J. U. Similar response of labile and resistant soil organic matter pools to changes in temperature. Nature 433, 57–59 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Knorr, W., Prentice, I. C., House, J. I. & Holland, E. A. Long-term sensitivity of soil carbon turnover to global warming. Nature 433, 298–301 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Powlson, D. S. Will soil amplify climate change? Nature 433, 204–205 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Loveland, P. J. in Element Concentration Cadasters in Ecosystems (eds Lieth, H. & Markert, B.) 73–80 (VCH, Weinheim, Germany, 1990)

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Bradley, R. I. et al. A soil carbon and land use database for the UK. Soil Use Manag. (in the press)

  12. 12

    Worrall, F., Burt, T. & Shedden, R. Long term records of riverine dissolved organic matter. Biogeochemistry 64, 165–178 (2003)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Freeman, C. et al. Export of dissolved organic carbon from peatlands under elevated carbon dioxide levels. Nature 430, 195–198 (2004)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Schimel, D. S. et al. Recent patterns and mechanisms of carbon exchange by terrestrial ecosystems. Nature 414, 169–172 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Guo, L. B. & Gifford, R. M. Soil carbon stocks and land use change: a meta-analysis. Glob. Change Biol. 8, 345–360 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Houghton, R. A. Revised estimates of the annual net flux of carbon to the atmosphere from changes in land use and land management 1850–2000. Tellus B 55, 378–390 (2003)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Smith, K. A. et al. Exchange of greenhouse gases between soil and atmosphere: interactions of soil physical factors and biological processes. Eur. J. Soil Sci. 54, 779–791 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Hulme, M. et al. Climate Change Scenarios for the United Kingdom: The UKCIP02 Scientific Report (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Norwich, UK, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Webster, R. & Burgess, T. M. Sampling and bulking strategies for estimating soil properties in small regions. J. Soil Sci. 35, 127–140 (1984)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Kalembasa, S. J. & Jenkinson, D. S. A comparative study of titrimetric and gravimetric methods for the determination of organic carbon in soil. J. Sci. Food Agric. 24, 1085–1090 (1973)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Avery, B. W. & Bascomb, C. L. Soil Survey Laboratory Methods (Soil Survey Technical Monograph No. 6, Soil Survey of England & Wales, Harpenden, UK, 1974)

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Lark, R. M. & Cullis, B. R. Model-based analysis using REML for inference from systematically sampled data on soil. Eur. J. Soil Sci. 55, 777–797 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Gilmour, A. R. et al. ASReml User Guide release 1.0. (VSN International, Hemel Hempstead, UK, 2002)

  24. 24

    Avery, B. W. Soil Classification for England and Wales (Higher Categories) (Soil Survey Technical Monograph No. 14, Soil Survey of England & Wales, Harpenden, 1980)

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Howard, P. J. A. et al. The carbon content of soil and its geographical distribution in Great Britain. Soil Use Manag. 11, 9–15 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank Defra for funding this research, R. Andrews for technical assistance, and D. Powlson and J. Hollis for comments on the draft Letter.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Guy J. D. Kirk.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure S1

Variability of soil carbon content measured at 0, 10 and 50m from ten target sites, confirming that the accuracy with which sites could be relocated was adequate. (DOC 25 kb)

Supplementary Figure S2

Comparison of Corg values measured by ion loss on ignition and by the modified Walkley-Black method for 95 souls with Corg = 20-200g kg-1, confirming that the change of method for high carbon soils introduced no artefacts. (DOC 25 kb)

Supplementary Figure S3

Comparison of Corg values obtained in 2004 on archived soils from the original sampling with the values obtained at the time of the original sampling, confirming that there were no significant differences in analytical precision between the samplings. This file was corrected on 24 August 2007. (DOC 28 kb)

Supplementary Table S1

Characteristics of the sites used to study the accuracy of relocation and local variation of soil carbon. (DOC 35 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bellamy, P., Loveland, P., Bradley, R. et al. Carbon losses from all soils across England and Wales 1978–2003. Nature 437, 245–248 (2005).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.