Abstract

The majority of the Earth’s terrestrial carbon is stored in the soil. If anthropogenic warming stimulates the loss of this carbon to the atmosphere, it could drive further planetary warming1,2,3,4. Despite evidence that warming enhances carbon fluxes to and from the soil5,6, the net global balance between these responses remains uncertain. Here we present a comprehensive analysis of warming-induced changes in soil carbon stocks by assembling data from 49 field experiments located across North America, Europe and Asia. We find that the effects of warming are contingent on the size of the initial soil carbon stock, with considerable losses occurring in high-latitude areas. By extrapolating this empirical relationship to the global scale, we provide estimates of soil carbon sensitivity to warming that may help to constrain Earth system model projections. Our empirical relationship suggests that global soil carbon stocks in the upper soil horizons will fall by 30 ± 30 petagrams of carbon to 203 ± 161 petagrams of carbon under one degree of warming, depending on the rate at which the effects of warming are realized. Under the conservative assumption that the response of soil carbon to warming occurs within a year, a business-as-usual climate scenario would drive the loss of 55 ± 50 petagrams of carbon from the upper soil horizons by 2050. This value is around 12–17 per cent of the expected anthropogenic emissions over this period7,8. Despite the considerable uncertainty in our estimates, the direction of the global soil carbon response is consistent across all scenarios. This provides strong empirical support for the idea that rising temperatures will stimulate the net loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere, driving a positive land carbon–climate feedback that could accelerate climate change.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (GSBI) for support during this project. This project was largely funded by grants to T.W.C. from Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, the British Ecological Society and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. M.A.B. and W.R.W. were supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation and W.R.W. from the US Department of Energy and K.E.O.T.-B. by the Linus Pauling Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship programme. The experiments that produced the data were funded by grants too numerous to list here.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Droevendaalsesteeg 10, 6708 PB Wageningen, The Netherlands.

    • T. W. Crowther
    • , B. L. Snoek
    •  & M. A. Bradford
  2. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale University, 370 Prospect Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06511, USA.

    • T. W. Crowther
    • , C. W. Rowe
    •  & M. A. Bradford
  3. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington, Washington 99354, USA.

    • K. E. O. Todd-Brown
    •  & N. W. Sokol
  4. Climate & Global Dynamics Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80307, USA.

    • W. R. Wieder
  5. Institute of Arctic & Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80303, USA.

    • W. R. Wieder
  6. Marine Biological Laboratory, 7 MBL Street, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA.

    • J. C. Carey
  7. Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, 1499 Campus Delivery, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523-1499, USA.

    • M. B. Machmuller
    •  & J. M. Lavallee
  8. Laboratory of Nematology, Wageningen University, Droevendaalsesteeg 1, 6708 PB Wageningen, The Netherlands.

    • B. L. Snoek
  9. Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, No. 46 Zhongguancun South Street, Beijing 100081, China.

    • S. Fang
    •  & G. Zhou
  10. Collaborative Innovation Center on Forecast Meteorological Disaster Warning & Assessment, Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Nanjing 210044, China.

    • S. Fang
  11. Department of Earth System Science, University of California Irvine, Irvine, California 92697, USA.

    • S. D. Allison
  12. Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of California Irvine, California 92697, USA.

    • S. D. Allison
    •  & K. K. Treseder
  13. Division of Biology, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas 66506, USA.

    • J. M. Blair
  14. Institute of Ecology & Evolution, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403, USA.

    • S. D. Bridgham
    • , L. Pfeifer-Meister
    •  & L. L. Reynolds
  15. School of Forest Resources & Environmental Science, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan 49931, USA.

    • A. J. Burton
  16. Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University, Penrith, 2570 New South Wales, Australia.

    • Y. Carrillo
    • , P. B. Reich
    •  & E. Pendall
  17. Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA.

    • P. B. Reich
  18. Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA.

    • J. S. Clark
  19. The Center for Macroecology, Evolution, and Climate, The Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken, 15, 2100, København Ø, Denmark.

    • A. T. Classen
  20. Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, 569 Dabney Hall, 1416 Circle Drive, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996, USA.

    • A. T. Classen
  21. Centre for Carbon, Water & Food, The University of Sydney, Camden, 2570 New South Wales, Australia.

    • F. A. Dijkstra
  22. Center for Permafrost (CENPERM), Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, Øster Voldgade 10, 1350 Copenhagen K, Denmark.

    • B. Elberling
    •  & A. Michelsen
  23. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Environment Centre Wales, Deiniol Road, Bangor LL57 2UW, UK.

    • B. A. Emmett
    •  & S. Reinsch
  24. CSIC, Global Ecology Unit CREAF-CSIC, Cerdanyola del Vallès, 08193 Catalonia, Spain.

    • M. Estiarte
    •  & J. Peñuelas
  25. CREAF, Cerdanyola del Vallès, 08193 Catalonia, Spain.

    • M. Estiarte
    •  & J. Peñuelas
  26. Department of Natural Resources & the Environment, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, USA.

    • S. D. Frey
  27. Key Laboratory of Vegetation Ecology, Ministry of Education, Northeast Normal University, Changchun 130024, Jilin Province, China.

    • J. Guo
  28. Energy & Resources Group, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720, USA.

    • J. Harte
  29. Department of Microbiology & Plant Biology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma 73019, USA.

    • L. Jiang
    •  & Y. Luo
  30. Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403, USA.

    • B. R. Johnson
  31. Institute of Ecology & Botany, Magyar Tudomanyos Akademia Centre for Ecological Research, 2–4 Alkotmany Utcakereso, Vacratot 2163, Hungary.

    • G. Kröel-Dulay
  32. Department of Geosciences & Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, Rolighedsvej 23, 1958 Frederiksberg C, Denmark.

    • K. S. Larsen
    •  & I. K. Schmidt
  33. Department of Forest Ecology & Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 90183 Umeå, Sweden.

    • H. Laudon
  34. Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, Dover Street, Manchester M13 9PT, UK.

    • J. M. Lavallee
  35. Center for Earth System Science, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China.

    • Y. Luo
  36. Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, 1 Arts Link, 117570 Singapore, Singapore.

    • M. Lupascu
  37. State Key Laboratory of Vegetation & Environmental Change, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100093, China.

    • L. N. Ma
  38. Institute of Soil Science & Land Evaluation, University of Hohenheim, 70593 Stuttgart, Germany.

    • S. Marhan
    •  & C. Poll
  39. Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark.

    • A. Michelsen
  40. Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30601, USA.

    • J. Mohan
  41. Key Laboratory of Ecosystem Network Observation & Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China.

    • S. Niu
  42. School of Natural Science, Hampshire College, 893 West Street, Amherst, Massachusetts 01002, USA.

    • S. Sistla
  43. Department of Biology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA.

    • P. H. Templer
  44. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alaska, Anchorage, Anchorage, Alaska 99508, USA.

    • J. M. Welker

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Contributions

The study was conceived by T.W.C. and N.W.S., and developed by T.W.C., M.A.B., K.E.O.T.-B. and W.R.W. Statistical analysis was performed by K.E.O.T.-B., M.A.B. and B.L.S. Spatial scaling and mapping were performed by W.R.W. and C.W.R. The manuscript was written by T.W.C. with assistance from C.W.R., M.A.B., W.R.W., K.E.O.T.-B., S.D.A. and P.B.R. All other authors reviewed and provided input on the manuscript. Measurements of soil C, bulk density and geospatial data from climate change experiments around the world were provided by J.C.C., M.B.M., S.F., G.Z., A.J.B., B.E., S.R., J.H., H.L., Y.L., A.M., J.P., M.E., S.D.F., G.K.-D., C.P., P.H.T., L.L.R., E.P., S.S., J.M.L., S.D.A., K.K.T., B.E., L.N.M., I.K.S., K.S.L., Y.C., F.A.D., S.D.B., S.M., S.N., A.T.C., J.M.B., J.S.C., J.G., B.R.J., J.M., L.P.-M. and P.B.R.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. W. Crowther.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks C. Jones and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data

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    Map of the study locations.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature20150

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