U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Soil Will Absorb Less Atmospheric Carbon Than Expected This Century
Published: September 23, 2016
Posted: November 07, 2016

A recent analysis finds that soil integrates carbon far slower than thought, meaning the amount that soils can absorb from the atmosphere this century is far less than what is predicted by current Earth system models. [Image courtesy University of California, Irvine]

A recent analysis of carbon isotope data suggests Earth system models overestimate soil carbon sequestration potential.

The Science
Researchers used carbon-14 (14C) data from 157 globally distributed soil profiles to determine that current soil carbon is about 3,100 years old rather than the 450 years stipulated by many Earth system models (ESMs).  This analysis shows that the fifth Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5), for example, underestimated the mean age of soil carbon by about a factor of six, resulting in an overestimate of soil carbon sequestration potential by a factor of nearly two. Consequently, a greater fraction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than previously thought could remain in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

The Impact
These findings, which have important implications for future atmospheric CO2 levels, emphasize the need to incorporate better understanding of soil carbon cycling as well as 14C and other tracer diagnostics into ESMs to improve the quality of future climate projections. The work also illustrates the potential value of systematically exploiting available ecosystem measurements during model development to create more robust models.

Soil is the largest terrestrial carbon reservoir and may influence the sign and magnitude of carbon cycle-climate feedbacks. Many ESMs estimate a significant soil carbon sink by 2100, yet the underlying carbon dynamics determining this response have not been systematically tested against observations. Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Stanford University, and U.S. Geological Survey used 14C data from 157 globally distributed soil profiles sampled to 1-meter depth to show that ESMs underestimated the mean age of soil carbon by a factor of more than six (430 ± 50 years versus 3100 ± 1800 years). Consequently, ESMs overestimated the carbon sequestration potential of soils by a factor of nearly two (40 ± 27%). This analysis shows that ESMs must better represent carbon stabilization processes and the turnover time of slow and passive soil carbon reservoirs when simulating future atmospheric CO2 dynamics.

Contacts (BER PM)
Dan Stover,

Renu Joseph

(Author Contact)
James T. Randerson
Department of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine
jranders@uci.edu 949-824-9030

(PI Contacts)
Margaret Torn
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Scientific Focus Area
Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
mstorn@lbl.gov  510-495-2223

Forrest Hoffman
Biogeochemistry-Climate Feedbacks Scientific Focus Area
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
forrest@climatemodeling.org  865-576-7680

This research was performed for the Biogeochemistry-Climate Feedbacks Scientific Focus Area (SFA) and the Berkeley Lab Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES) SFA, which are sponsored by the Regional and Global Climate Modeling (RGCM) and TES programs, respectively, in the Climate and Environmental Sciences Division of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Office of Science, U.S. Department of Energy.

Y. He, S. E. Trumbore, M. S. Torn, J. W. Harden, L.J. S. Vaughn, S. D. Allison, and J. T. Randerson, “Radiocarbon constraints imply reduced carbon uptake by soils during the 21st century.” Science 353(6306),1419-24 (2016). [DOI: 10.1126/science.aad4273]

Related Links
Soil will absorb less atmospheric carbon than expected this century UCI-led study finds (UCI Press release)
Biogeochemistry-Climate Feedbacks Scientific Focus Area
Berkeley Lab Scientists Contribute to New Soil Carbon Study Today at Berkeley Lab
Soil sponge soaking up far less carbon dioxide than expected Chemistry Word
Soil will absorb less atmospheric carbon than expected this century, study finds Science Daily
Soil carbon storage not the climate change fix it was thought, research finds The Guardian
The Earth is soaking up less carbon than we thought – which could make it warm up even faster Washington Post

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling
  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Nutrient Cycling

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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