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PI-Submitted Research Highlights for
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program

Networking Science to Improve Soil Organic Matter Management Opportunities

Ben Bond-Lamberty


5 October 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. 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.

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 and soil health and the other focused on the terrestrial carbon cycle and biogeochemistry. Together, these science communities have an opportunity to combine and transform knowledge, databases, and mathematical frameworks for the benefit of environmental health and humanity.

The Impact
SOM and its main constituent, SOC, interact with several aspects of the Earth system and its services to society, including food, fiber, water, energy, cycling of carbon and nutrients, and biodiversity. It is critical that the scientific community expand its understanding of SOM and SOC so that it 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 carbon reservoirs, and direct human activities (growing crops, grazing, and forestry practices) impact over 70% of carbon 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 carbon dioxide (CO2) through soil carbon 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 is an opportunity to offset carbon 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 carbon cycle and to soil management.

BER Program Manager
Dan Stover
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (301-903-0289)

Principal Investigators
Ben Bond-Lamberty
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Richland, WA 99354 (301-314-6759)

Kathe Todd-Brown
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Richland, WA 99354 (509-371-6547)

BBL was supported by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences program of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. KTB was supported by the Linus Pauling Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship program at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Harden, J.W., et al. “Networking our science to characterize the state, vulnerabilities, and management opportunities of soil organic matter.” Global Change Biology 24(2), e705–e718. [DOI:10.1111/gcb.13896]

This article resulted from a weeklong workshop funded by Stanford University Earth System Science held in February 2017 by the first 15 authors (listed alphabetically after the two lead authors) and from additional participation by the remaining authors. We thank attendees of the ISCN all-hands meeting December 11, 2016 held in San Francisco; Ankur Desai, and Marjorie Schulz, and members of the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis Working Group “What lies below? Improving quantification and prediction of soil carbon storage, stability, and susceptibility to disturbance,” for their supportive and constructive ideas; and USDA Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bolin Climate Research Center at Stockholm University for support. G.H. was supported by the Swedish Research Council (E0641701) and the EU JPI-Climate consortium COUP. 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 the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. 

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