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The global significance of omitting soil erosion from soil organic carbon cycling schemes

Abstract

Soil organic carbon (SOC) cycling schemes used in land surface models (LSMs) typically account only for the effects of net primary production and heterotrophic respiration1. To demonstrate the significance of omitting soil redistribution in SOC accounting, sequestration and emissions, we modified the SOC cycling scheme RothC (ref. 2) to include soil erosion. Net SOC fluxes with and without soil erosion for Australian long-term trial sites were established and estimates made across Australia and other global regions based on a validated relation with catchment-scale soil erosion. Assuming that soil erosion is omitted from previous estimates of net C flux, we found that SOC erosion is incorrectly attributed to respiration. On this basis, the Australian National Greenhouse Gas inventory overestimated the net C flux from cropland by up to 40% and the potential (100 year) C sink is overestimated by up to 17%. We estimated global terrestrial SOC erosion to be 0.3–1.0 Pg C yr−1 indicating an uncertainty of −18 to −27% globally and +35 to −82% regionally relative to the long-term (2000–2010) terrestrial C flux of several LSMs. Including soil erosion in LSMs should reduce uncertainty in SOC flux estimates3,4 with implications for CO2 emissions, mitigation and adaptation strategies and interpretations of trends and variability in global ecosystems5.

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Figure 1: Temporal variation in measured (symbols) and modelled (lines) soil organic carbon for the Waite rotation trial plots.
Figure 2: Relation between soil erosion and the difference in net C flux.

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Acknowledgements

Financial support for this research was provided by CSIRO Agriculture. The authors are grateful to Y. Li for providing the 137Cs measurements and to P. Canadell, Z. Luo and R. Farquharson for comments on early versions of the document. Any errors or omissions in the manuscript remain the responsibility of the authors.

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Contributions

A.C. conceived of the project in consultation with J.B. and J.S. J.S. organized the soil samples and measurement of 137Cs and A.C. calculated the estimates of soil redistribution. A.C. wrote the code in Matlab to analyse the data, performed the analyses and interpreted the results in consultation with J.B. and J.S. A.C. led the manuscript writing with contributions from J.B. and J.S.

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Correspondence to Adrian Chappell.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Chappell, A., Baldock, J. & Sanderman, J. The global significance of omitting soil erosion from soil organic carbon cycling schemes. Nature Clim Change 6, 187–191 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2829

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