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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.

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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.


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

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Correspondence to Guy J. D. Kirk.

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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)

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

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