Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 917–924 | Cite as

Impact of woody encroachment on soil organic carbon and nitrogen in abandoned agricultural lands along a rainfall gradient in Italy

  • G. AlbertiEmail author
  • V. Leronni
  • M. Piazzi
  • F. Petrella
  • P. Mairota
  • A. Peressotti
  • P. Piussi
  • R. Valentini
  • L. Gristina
  • T. La Mantia
  • A. Novara
  • J. Rühl
Original Article


Land use changes represent one of the most important components of global environmental change and have a strong influence on carbon cycling. As a consequence of changes in economy during the last century, areas of marginal agriculture have been abandoned leading to secondary successions. The encroachment of woody plants into grasslands, pastures and croplands is generally thought to increase the carbon stored in these ecosystems even though there are evidences for a decrease in soil carbon stocks after land use change. In this paper, we investigate the effects of woody plant invasion on soil carbon and nitrogen stocks along a precipitation gradient (200–2,500 mm) using original data from paired experiment in Italian Alps and Sicily and data from literature (Guo and Gifford Glob Change Biol 8(4):345–360, 2002). We found a clear negative relationship (−0.05% C mm−1) between changes in soil organic carbon and precipitation explaining 70% of the variation in soil C stocks after recolonization: dry sites gain carbon (up to +67%) while wet sites lose carbon (up to −45%). In our data set, there seem to be two threshold values for soil carbon accumulation: the first one is 900 mm of mean annual rainfall, which separates the negative from the positive ratio values; the second one is 750 mm, which divides the positive values in two groups of sites. Most interestingly, this threshold of 750 mm corresponds exactly to a bioclimatic threshold: sites with <750 mm mean annual rainfall is classified as thermo-mediterranean sites, while the ones >750 mm are classified as mesomediterranean sites. This suggests that apart from rainfall also temperature values have an important influence on soil carbon accumulation after abandonment. Moreover, our results confirmed that the correlation between rainfall and trend in soil organic carbon may be related to nitrogen dynamics: carbon losses may occur only if there is a substantial decrease in soil nitrogen stock which occurs in wetter sites probably because of the higher leaching.


Land use change Soil carbon Precipitation gradient Secondary succession 



This work was financially supported by the Italian government through the FIRB project ‘‘Carboitaly’’, the PRIN project ‘‘Methodologies for CO2 uptake accounting in agricultural and forest ecosystems’’ and PRIN project “The impacts of secondary succession processes on carbon storage in soil and biomass and on biodiversity and the role of dispersal centres and vectors for recolonization processes”. We would like to thank Diego Chiabà for the help during field campaigns and lab analysis.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • G. Alberti
    • 1
    Email author
  • V. Leronni
    • 2
  • M. Piazzi
    • 3
  • F. Petrella
    • 3
  • P. Mairota
    • 2
  • A. Peressotti
    • 1
  • P. Piussi
    • 4
  • R. Valentini
    • 5
  • L. Gristina
    • 6
  • T. La Mantia
    • 7
  • A. Novara
    • 6
  • J. Rühl
    • 8
  1. 1.Department of Agricultural and Environmental SciencesUniversity of UdineUdineItaly
  2. 2.Dipartimento di Scienze Agro-Ambientali e TerritorialiUniversity of BariBariItaly
  3. 3.Istituto per le Piante da Legno e l’Ambiente (IPLA)TurinItaly
  4. 4.Department of Forest Science and ResourcesUniversity of TusciaViterboItaly
  5. 5.Department of Agriculture and Forest Sciences and TechnologiesUniversity of FlorenceFlorenceItaly
  6. 6.Dipartimento SagaUniversity of PalermoPalermoItaly
  7. 7.Dipartimento DemetraUniversity of PalermoPalermoItaly
  8. 8.EnBioTech s.r.l.PalermoItaly

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