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Climate-driven thresholds in reactive mineral retention of soil carbon at the global scale


Soil organic matter can release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as the climate warms. Organic matter sorbed to reactive (iron- and aluminium-bearing) soil minerals is an important mechanism for long-term carbon storage. However, the global distribution of mineral-stored carbon across climate zones and consequently its overall contribution to the global soil carbon pool is poorly known. We measured carbon held by reactive minerals across a broad range of climates. Carbon retained by reactive minerals was found to contribute between 3 and 72% of organic carbon found in mineral soil, depending on mean annual precipitation and potential evapotranspiration. Globally, we estimate ~600 Gt of soil carbon is retained by reactive minerals, with most occurring in wet forested biomes. For many biomes, the fraction of organic carbon retained by reactive minerals is responsive to slight shifts in effective moisture, suggesting high sensitivity to future changes in climate.

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Fig. 1: Effective moisture (mean annual precipitation after correcting for PET) and soil pit locations for NEON sites and a global archived data set over North and Central America.
Fig. 2: Percentage of organic carbon released as DOC after reactive mineral dissolution with pyrophosphate dithionite as a function of MAP adjusted for PET.
Fig. 3: Relationship between total organic C content and MAP adjusted for PET.
Fig. 4: Global carbon stock of C retained by reactive minerals.
Fig. 5: Total and reactive mineral soil C stock by biome.
Fig. 6

Data availability

Open raster, vector and tabular data are posted on the Harvard Dataverse under a CC0 Public Domain Dedication licence that allows full and unrestricted global use of the data generated during this research while giving proper citation to the original author. These posted data allow for full replication, at the minimum mapping unit, of the results generated during this analysis. The data that support the findings of this study are available at Correspondence and requests for materials should be made to M.G.K.


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The authors thank R. Johnson, D. Andreasen and G. Kahl for assistance with soil analyses. Soil sample preparation and analyses were conducted at the Stable Isotope and Organic Geochemistry Laboratory at Washington State University, Vancouver. This work was, in part, financially supported by National Research Initiative grant no. 2007–35107–18429 and from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant no. 2017–05483. Soil samples were provided by NEON, which is a programme sponsored by the National Science Foundation and operated under a cooperative agreement with Battelle Memorial Institute.

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M.G.K. conceived of the study, designed and executed soil sample analyses, as well as global soil C and climate data set analyses. M.G.K. wrote the manuscript, to which both authors contributed substantial interpretation, discussion and text.

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Correspondence to Marc G. Kramer.

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Kramer, M.G., Chadwick, O.A. Climate-driven thresholds in reactive mineral retention of soil carbon at the global scale. Nature Clim Change 8, 1104–1108 (2018).

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