Quantifying global soil carbon losses in response to warming


T. W. Crowther, Yale University
K. E. O. Todd-Brown, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
C. W. Rowe, Yale University
William R. Wieder, University of Colorado
J. C. Carey, Marine Biological Laboratory
M. B. Machmuller, Colorado State University
B. L. Snoek, Wageningen University
S. Fang, Nanjing University
G. Zhou, Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences
S. D. Allison, University of California Irvine
J. M. Blair, Kansas State University
S. D. Bridgham, University of Oregon
A. J. Burton, Michigan Technological University
Y. Carrillo, Western Sydney University
P. B. Reich, Western Sydney University
J. S. Clark, Duke University
A. T. Classen, University of Copenhagen
F. A. Dijkstra, University of Sydney
B. Elberling, University of Copenhagen
B. A. Emmett, Environment Centre Wales
M. Estiarte, CSIC
Serita D. Frey, University of New Hampshire, DurhamFollow
J. Guo, Northeast Normal University
J. Harte, University of California at Berkeley
L. Jiang, University of Oklahoma
B. R. Johnson, University of Oregon
G. Kroel-Dulay, Magyar Tudomanyos Akademia Centre for Ecological Research
K. S. Larsen, University of Copenhagen
H. Laudon, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
J. M. Lavallee, Colorado State University
Y. Luo, University of Oklahoma
M. Lupascu, National University of Singapore
L. N. Ma, Chinese Academy of Sciences
S. Marhan, University of Hohenheim
A. Michelsen, University of Copenhagen
J. Mohan, University of Georgia
S. Niu, Chinese Academy of Sciences
E. Pendall, Western Sydney University
J. Penuelas, Cerdanyola del Vallès
L. Pfeifer-Meister, University of Oregon
C. Poll, University of Hohenheim
S. Reinsch, Environment Centre Wales
L. L. Reynolds, University of Oregon
I. K. Schmidt, University of Copenhagen
S. Sistla, Hampshire College
N. W. Sokol, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
P. H. Templer, Boston University
K. K. Treseder, University of California
J. M. Welker, University of Alaska
M. A. Bradford, Yale University


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.


Soil Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

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Springer Nature

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