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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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.
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Ecological Applications (2019)