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Deep Soil Horizons: Contribution and Importance to Soil Carbon Pools and in Assessing Whole-Ecosystem Response to Management and Global Change

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Most of the C in terrestrial ecosystems is found in the soil. Although C calculations indicate that soils are more important than plants as reservoirs of C, soil rarely receives the attention given aboveground ecosystem components when C budgets are calculated. When soil pools are quantified they are typically sampled to relatively shallow depths. Shallow soil sampling in research includes studies that estimate C and nutrient pools and studies assessing the response of terrestrial ecosystems (i.e., forests, grasslands, and agricultural fields) to management treatments. Although many soils have sola that are substantially deeper than 20 cm and C accumulates well below these depths in many soils, the majority of studies of soil C sample to depths of 20 cm or less, generally because of the difficulty and cost of sampling the soil profile deeper. Shallow soil sampling is often justified by assuming that deeper soil horizons are stable and will not change over time, although some medium- and long-term studies do not support this assumption. Shallow soil sampling can result in both a major underestimate of soil C present in the soil profile and an inability to adequately measure the impacts of both treatments for specific goals (i.e., tillage, fertilization, and vegetation management) or other changes (i.e., global change and atmospheric inputs) over time in whole-ecosystem studies. We assessed the potential of shallow soil sampling to underestimate C in the soil profile as well as to change the conclusions of studies of management treatments on soil C. Results showed that where soils were sampled to at least 80 cm or more depth 27‐77% of mineral soil C was found >20 cm in depth. In addition, analysis of results for 105 different studies of N fertilization in forests and N fertilization or conversion to switchgrass in agricultural studies shows that deeper sampling can actually change the conclusions of results of some research studies of net C accumulation or loss. Researchers wishing to either quantify soil C pools or measure changes of soil C over time are cautioned to sample soil profiles as deeply as possible and not assume that deeper soil horizons are not a critical part of adequate ecosystem analysis.

Keywords: carbon; deep soil; soil sampling; subsoil

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2011-02-01

More about this publication?
  • Forest Science is a peer-reviewed journal publishing fundamental and applied research that explores all aspects of natural and social sciences as they apply to the function and management of the forested ecosystems of the world. Topics include silviculture, forest management, biometrics, economics, entomology & pathology, fire & fuels management, forest ecology, genetics & tree improvement, geospatial technologies, harvesting & utilization, landscape ecology, operations research, forest policy, physiology, recreation, social sciences, soils & hydrology, and wildlife management.
    Forest Science is published bimonthly in February, April, June, August, October, and December.

    2015 Impact Factor: 1.702
    Ranking: 16 of 66 in forestry

    Also published by SAF:
    Journal of Forestry
    Other SAF Publications
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