, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 67–93 | Cite as

Land use change and the global carbon cycle: the role of tropical soils

  • R. P. Detwiler


Millions of hectares of tropical forest are cleared annually for agriculture, pasture, shifting cultivation and timber. One result of these changes in land use is the release of CO2 from the cleared vegetation and soils. Although there is uncertainty as to the size of this release, it appears to be a major source of atmospheric CO2, second only to the release from the combustion of fossil fuels. This study estimates the release of CO2 from tropical soils using a computer model that simulates land use change in the tropics and data on (1) the carbon content of forest soils before clearing; (2) the changes in the carbon content under the various types of land use; and (3) the area of forest converted to each use. It appears that the clearing and use of tropical soils affects their carbon content to a depth of about 40 cm. Soils of tropical closed forests contain approximately 6.7 kg C · m-2; soils of tropical open forests contain approximately 5.2 kg C · m-2 to this depth. The cultivation of tropical soils reduces their carbon content by 40% 5 yr after clearing; the use of these soils for pasture reduces it by about 20%. Logging in tropical forests appears to have little effect on soil carbon. The carbon content of soils used by shifting cultivators returns to the level found under primary forest about 35 yr after abandonment. The estimated net release of carbon from tropical soils due to land use change was 0.11–0.26 × 1015 g in 1980.

Key words

soil carbon soil organic matter tropical forests carbon cycle land use change 


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Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff/Dr W. Junk Publishers 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. P. Detwiler
    • 1
  1. 1.Section of Ecology and Systematics, Division of Biological SciencesCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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