Biotic and Abiotic Drivers of Topsoil Organic Carbon Concentration in Drylands Have Similar Effects at Regional and Global Scales


Drylands contain 25% of the world’s soil organic carbon (SOC), which is controlled by many factors, both abiotic and biotic. Thus, understanding how these factors control SOC concentration can help to design more sustainable land-use practices in drylands aiming to foster and preserve SOC storage, something particularly important to fight ongoing global warming. We use two independent, large-scale databases with contrasting geographic coverage (236 sites in global drylands and 185 sites in Patagonia, Argentina) to evaluate the relative importance of abiotic (precipitation, temperature and soil texture) and biotic (primary productivity) factors as drivers of SOC concentration in drylands at global and regional scales. We found that biotic and abiotic factors had similar effects on SOC concentration across regional and global scales: Maximum temperature and sand content had negative effects, while precipitation and plant productivity exerted positive effects. Our findings provide empirical evidence that increases in temperature and reductions in rainfall, as forecasted by climatic models in many drylands worldwide, promote declines in SOC both directly and indirectly via the reduction in plant productivity. This has important implications for the conservation of drylands under climate change; land management should seek to enhance plant productivity as a tool to offset the negative impact of climate change on SOC storage and on associated ecosystem services.

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Figure 1

Precipitation data from Worldclim global database (, Hijmans and others 2005).

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We acknowledge all members of the EPES-BIOCOM and MARAS research networks, and all members of the Maestre Lab, for supplying data for this study. This research was supported by INTA, the Project ARG07/G35 of the Global Environment Facility, the Project PICT-2015-0716 and the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement No. 242658 (BIOCOM), and by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) through WASCAL (Grant No. FKZ 01LG1202A). FTM acknowledges support from the European Research Council (ERC Grant Agreement No. 647038 [BIODESERT]) and of a sabbatical fellowship by sDiv, the synthesis center of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG; Grant No. FZT 118). AL acknowledges support from the DFG through the TRR 228 (Grant No. 398498378). RTG acknowledges support from the Catholic Academic Exchange Services (KAAD) of the German Catholic church.

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Correspondence to Juan J. Gaitán.

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JJG and FTM developed the original idea. JJG conducted statistical analyses. FTM, DEB, GGB, AJD, GGM, DF, RTG, AL, VM, ADT and GEO collected and provided the data used. JJG wrote the first draft of the article, and all authors contributed to the final version of the manuscript.

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Gaitán, J.J., Maestre, F.T., Bran, D.E. et al. Biotic and Abiotic Drivers of Topsoil Organic Carbon Concentration in Drylands Have Similar Effects at Regional and Global Scales. Ecosystems 22, 1445–1456 (2019) doi:10.1007/s10021-019-00348-y

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  • climate change
  • precipitation
  • temperature
  • soil texture
  • ecosystem services
  • aboveground net primary productivity