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Human-induced erosion has offset one-third of carbon emissions from land cover change

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Abstract

Anthropogenic land cover change (ALCC) is an important carbon (C) loss mechanism1,2,3, but current methods do not consider the role of accelerated soil organic C erosion and its burial in sediments in their assessments of net soil–atmosphere C exchange. Using a comprehensive global database and parsimonious modelling, we evaluate the impact of anthropogenic soil erosion on C fluxes between the Earth’s surface and atmosphere from the onset of agriculture to the present day. We find that agricultural erosion represents a very large and transient perturbation to the C cycle and has induced a cumulative net uptake of 78 ± 22 Pg C in terrestrial ecosystems during the period 6000 BC to AD 2015. This erosion-induced soil organic C sink is estimated to have offset 37 ± 10% of previously recognized C emissions resulting from ALCC. We estimate that rates of C burial have increased by a factor of 4.6 since AD 1850. Thus, current assessments may significantly overestimate both past and future anthropogenic emissions from the land. Given that ALCC is the most uncertain component of the global C budget and that there is a strong connection between ALCC and erosion, an explicit representation of erosion and burial processes is essential to fully understand the impact of human activities on the net soil–atmosphere C exchange.

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Figure 1: Component fluxes of the erosion-induced C budget for the period of agriculture.
Figure 2: Comparison of observed and simulated cumulative anthropogenic sediment fluxes.
Figure 3: Observed and simulated SOC profiles for 20 climate–geomorphic classes.
Figure 4: Temporal evolution of land–atmosphere C fluxes due to primary ALCC emissions and erosion/burial.

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Acknowledgements

Z.W. is funded by BELSPO (IUAP programme, contract: P7-24). J.O.K. is supported by the European Research Council (313797 COEVOLVE). K.V.O. is a Senior Research Associate of the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS), Belgium. Support for this project was provided by the FNRS (convention number 2.4590.12). We thank S. Bouillon, H. Maclean, T. A. Quine and A. Stevens for comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.

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Z.W. and K.V.O. conceived the research; Z.W. performed the analysis; Z.W. and K.V.O. co-wrote the paper. All authors assisted in the interpretation of the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Zhengang Wang.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Wang, Z., Hoffmann, T., Six, J. et al. Human-induced erosion has offset one-third of carbon emissions from land cover change. Nature Clim Change 7, 345–349 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3263

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