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Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property


Globally, soil organic matter (SOM) contains more than three times as much carbon as either the atmosphere or terrestrial vegetation. Yet it remains largely unknown why some SOM persists for millennia whereas other SOM decomposes readily—and this limits our ability to predict how soils will respond to climate change. Recent analytical and experimental advances have demonstrated that molecular structure alone does not control SOM stability: in fact, environmental and biological controls predominate. Here we propose ways to include this understanding in a new generation of experiments and soil carbon models, thereby improving predictions of the SOM response to global warming.

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Figure 1: Molecular structure does not control long-term decomposition of soil organic matter (SOM).
Figure 2: In soil, the existence of humic substances has not been verified by direct measurements.
Figure 3: A synopsis of all eight insights, contrasting historical and emerging views of soil carbon cycling.


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The European Science Foundation Network MOLTER sponsored the workshop at which the idea for this Perspective was conceived. Support for M.W.I.S. and M.S.T. was also provided by the US Department of Energy (contract no. DE-AC02-05CH11231).

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M.W.I.S. coordinated the MOLTER-sponsored workshop mentioned above; the ideas were developed by all authors. M.W.I.S. and M.S.T. participated actively and equally in the writing of the manuscript and the drafting of the figures. All authors provided input into the drafting and the final version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Michael W. I. Schmidt or Margaret S. Torn.

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Schmidt, M., Torn, M., Abiven, S. et al. Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property. Nature 478, 49–56 (2011).

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