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Soil carbon saturation: concept, evidence and evaluation

Abstract

Current estimates of soil C storage potential are based on models or factors that assume linearity between C input levels and C stocks at steady-state, implying that SOC stocks could increase without limit as C input levels increase. However, some soils show little or no increase in steady-state SOC stock with increasing C input levels suggesting that SOC can become saturated with respect to C input. We used long-term field experiment data to assess alternative hypotheses of soil carbon storage by three simple models: a linear model (no saturation), a one-pool whole-soil C saturation model, and a two-pool mixed model with C saturation of a single C pool, but not the whole soil. The one-pool C saturation model best fit the combined data from 14 sites, four individual sites were best-fit with the linear model, and no sites were best fit by the mixed model. These results indicate that existing agricultural field experiments generally have too small a range in C input levels to show saturation behavior, and verify the accepted linear relationship between soil C and C input used to model SOM dynamics. However, all sites combined and the site with the widest range in C input levels were best fit with the C-saturation model. Nevertheless, the same site produced distinct effective stabilization capacity curves rather than an absolute C saturation level. We conclude that the saturation of soil C does occur and therefore the greatest efficiency in soil C sequestration will be in soils further from C saturation.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For simplicity, losses via respiration are included in the term k, and losses through other pathways (e.g., leaching) are assumed to be zero.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Steve Williams, Mark Easter, and Stephen Ogle for assistance with long-term agroecosystem data compilation. We would also like to thank Gabriela Bucini and Gabe Olchin for many helpful discussions and Jim Graham for mathematical assistance. This project was supported by the Office of Research (BER), U.S. Department of Energy Grant No. DE-FG03-00ER62997 and Grant No. DE-FG02-04ER63912 and by the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under Agreement No. 2001-38700-11092.

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Correspondence to Catherine E. Stewart.

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Stewart, C.E., Paustian, K., Conant, R.T. et al. Soil carbon saturation: concept, evidence and evaluation. Biogeochemistry 86, 19–31 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-007-9140-0

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Keywords

  • Agroecosystems
  • Carbon saturation
  • Soil carbon sequestration
  • Soil carbon modeling
  • Tillage