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Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program

Networking Science to Improve Soil Organic Matter Management Opportunities
Published: October 05, 2017
Posted: November 21, 2017

A perspective from the International Soil Carbon Network.

The Science
Soil organic matter (SOM) sustains terrestrial ecosystems, provides food and fiber, and retains the largest pool of actively cycling carbon (C). Over 75% of the soil organic carbon (SOC) in the top meter of soil is directly affected by human land use practices. Large areas with and without intentional management are also being subjected to rapid climate changes, making many reservoirs of SOC in soil vulnerable to losses by decomposition or disturbance.

In order to quantify potential losses of SOC or its sequestration at field, regional, and global scales, members of the International Soil Carbon Network (ISCN) posit that improvements in scientific data, modeling, and communication are necessary. They also suggest that their network could be a platform for integrating the two scientific communities dominating SOM research: one focused on soil science/soil health and the other focused on the terrestrial C cycle /biogeochemistry. Together, these science communities have an opportunity to combine and transform our knowledge, databases, and mathematical frameworks for the benefit of environmental health and humanity.

The Impact
Soil organic matter (SOM) and its main constituent, soil organic carbon (SOC), interact with several aspects of the Earth system and its services to society, including food, fiber, water, energy, cycling of C and nutrients, and biodiversity. It is critical that the scientific community expand its understanding of SOM and SOC so that we can improve the state of soil and ecological sustainability, as well as contribute to climate change mitigation.

At the global scale, SOM is one of the largest actively cycling C reservoirs, and direct human activities (growing crops, grazing, and forestry practices) impact over 70% of C stocks in the upper meter of soil. The distribution of soils in managed lands follows the distribution of human land use. Overlaying the estimated SOC stocks with human land-use data shows that the majority of near-surface SOC stocks are directly affected by human activities today.

One global initiative to reduce atmospheric CO2 through soil C sequestration has demonstrated that many soils in managed systems could offer an opportunity for climate regulation. And if these gains are applied across all land management plans, there’s an opportunity to offset C emissions from permafrost, or from the combined projected emissions from land use change and agricultural management.

The ISCN posits that there is a need and an opportunity for the scientific community to: 1) better identify datasets to characterize ecosystem and landscape properties, processes, and the mechanisms that dictate SOC storage and stabilization and their vulnerabilities to change; 2) identify, rescue, and disseminate existing datasets; 3) develop platforms for sharing data, models, and management practices for SOC science; and 4) improve the connection between the research communities related to the global C cycle and to soil management.  


Dan Stover

(PI Contact)
Ben Bond-Lamberty
BondLamberty@pnnl.gov, 301-314-6759

Kathe Todd-Brown
katherine.todd-brown@pnnl.gov, 509-371-6547

BBL was supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences Program. KTB was supported by the Linus Pauling Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship program at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.  

Harden, JW., G. Hugelius, A. Ahlstrom. 2017. “Networking Our Science to Characterize the State, Vulnerabilities, and Management Opportunities of Soil Organic Matter,” Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13896

Topic Areas:

  • 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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