, Volume 140, Issue 1, pp 1–13 | Cite as

Improving understanding of soil organic matter dynamics by triangulating theories, measurements, and models

  • Joseph C. BlankinshipEmail author
  • Asmeret Asefaw Berhe
  • Susan E. Crow
  • Jennifer L. Druhan
  • Katherine A. Heckman
  • Marco Keiluweit
  • Corey R. Lawrence
  • Erika Marín-Spiotta
  • Alain F. Plante
  • Craig Rasmussen
  • Christina Schädel
  • Joshua P. Schimel
  • Carlos A. Sierra
  • Aaron Thompson
  • Rota Wagai
  • William R. Wieder
Synthesis and Emerging Ideas


Soil organic matter (SOM) turnover increasingly is conceptualized as a tension between accessibility to microorganisms and protection from decomposition via physical and chemical association with minerals in emerging soil biogeochemical theory. Yet, these components are missing from the original mathematical models of belowground carbon dynamics and remain underrepresented in more recent compartmental models that separate SOM into discrete pools with differing turnover times. Thus, a gap currently exists between the emergent understanding of SOM dynamics and our ability to improve terrestrial biogeochemical projections that rely on the existing models. In this opinion paper, we portray the SOM paradigm as a triangle composed of three nodes: conceptual theory, analytical measurement, and numerical models. In successful approaches, we contend that the nodes are connected—models capture the essential features of dominant theories while measurement tools generate data adequate to parameterize and evaluate the models—and balanced—models can inspire new theories via emergent behaviors, pushing empiricists to devise new measurements. Many exciting advances recently pushed the boundaries on one or more nodes. However, newly integrated triangles have yet to coalesce. We conclude that our ability to incorporate mechanisms of microbial decomposition and physicochemical protection into predictions of SOM change is limited by current disconnections and imbalances among theory, measurement, and modeling. Opportunities to reintegrate the three components of the SOM paradigm exist by carefully considering their linkages and feedbacks at specific scales of observation.


Biogeochemical models Carbon stabilization Decomposition Global carbon cycle Soil organic matter 



Essential support for this project came from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis Working Group on Soil Carbon: “What lies below? Improving quantification and prediction of soil carbon storage, stability, and susceptibility to disturbance.” This work was also supported in part by the USDA NIFA HAW01130-H. We thank participants of the International Soil Carbon Network (ISCN) for their help in refining the vision for this manuscript. We are also grateful for feedback from presenters and attendees of our organized oral session at the American Geophysical Union’s 2016 Fall Meeting (“Diving into our conceptual and operational view of soil carbon pools”) and Stefano Manzoni and three anonymous reviewers.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph C. Blankinship
    • 1
    Email author
  • Asmeret Asefaw Berhe
    • 2
  • Susan E. Crow
    • 3
  • Jennifer L. Druhan
    • 4
  • Katherine A. Heckman
    • 5
  • Marco Keiluweit
    • 6
  • Corey R. Lawrence
    • 7
  • Erika Marín-Spiotta
    • 8
  • Alain F. Plante
    • 9
  • Craig Rasmussen
    • 1
  • Christina Schädel
    • 10
  • Joshua P. Schimel
    • 11
  • Carlos A. Sierra
    • 12
  • Aaron Thompson
    • 13
  • Rota Wagai
    • 14
  • William R. Wieder
    • 15
    • 16
  1. 1.Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental ScienceUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Life and Environmental Sciences UnitUniversity of California MercedMercedUSA
  3. 3.Department of Natural Resources and Environmental ManagementUniversity of Hawaii ManoaHonoluluUSA
  4. 4.Department of GeologyUniversity of Illinois Urbana ChampaignChampaignUSA
  5. 5.USDA Forest ServiceNorthern Research StationHoughtonUSA
  6. 6.School of Earth and Sustainability, Stockbridge SchoolUniversity of MassachusettsAmherstUSA
  7. 7.U.S. Geological SurveyDenverUSA
  8. 8.Department of GeographyUniversity of Wisconsin at MadisonMadisonUSA
  9. 9.Department of Earth and Environmental ScienceUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  10. 10.Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA
  11. 11.Earth Research Institute and Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, University of California Santa BarbaraSanta BarbaraUSA
  12. 12.Max Planck Institute for BiogeochemistryJenaGermany
  13. 13.Department of Crop and Soil Science & Odum School of EcologyUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA
  14. 14.National Agriculture and Food Research Organization, Institute for Agro-Environmental SciencesTsukubaJapan
  15. 15.Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  16. 16.Climate and Global Dynamics LaboratoryNational Center for Atmospheric ResearchBoulderUSA

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