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Changes in Soil Carbon Following Afforestation

DOI: 10.3334/CDIAC/tcm.008

Forest Ecology and Management 168:241-257 (2002)

K. I. Paul, P. J. Polglase, J. G. Nyakuengama, P. K. Khanna
CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products
P.O. Box E4008
Kingston, ACT 2604, Australia

CSIRO logo

Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

Sponsor: Australian Greenhouse Office


Quantifying changes in soil C may be an important consideration under large-scale afforestation or reforestation. We reviewed global data on changes in soil C following afforestation, available from 43 published or unpublished studies, encompassing 204 sites. Data were highly variable, with soil C either increasing or decreasing, particularly in young (<10-y) forest stands. Because studies varied in the number of years since forest establishment and the initial soil C content, we calculated change in soil C as a weighted average (i.e. sum of C change divided by sum of years since forest establishment) relative to the soil C content under previous agricultural systems at <10 cm, >10 cm and <30 cm sampling depths. On average, soil C in the <10 cm (or <30 cm) layers generally decreased by 3.46% y–1 (or 0.63% y–1) relative to the initial soil C content during the first five years of afforestation, followed by a decrease in the rate of decline and eventually recovery to C contents found in agricultural soils at about age 30. In plantations older than 30 years, C content was similar to that under the previous agricultural systems within the surface 10 cm of soil, yet at other sampling depths, soil C had increased by between 0.50 and 0.86% y–1. Amounts of C lost or gained by soil are generally small compared with accumulation of C in tree biomass.

The most important factors affecting change in soil C were previous land use, climate and the type of forest established. Results suggest that most soil C was lost when softwoods, particularly Pinus radiata plantations, were established on ex-improved pastoral land in temperate regions. Accumulation of soil C was greatest when deciduous hardwoods, or N2-fixing species (either as an understorey or as a plantation), were established on ex-cropped land in tropical or subtropical regions. Long-term management regimes (e.g., stocking, weed control, thinning, fertilizer application and fire management) may also influence accumulation of soil C. Accumulation is maximised by maintaining longer (20-50 year) forest rotations. Furthermore, inclusion of litter in calculations reversed the observed average decrease in soil C, so that amount of C in soil and litter layer was greater than under preceding pasture.

Reprint available from Elsevier Science.

This table provides a quick look at some of the data available from this publication. For the complete data set, please contact Keryn Paul.

Location Layer (cm) Age (y) Climate1 Ex-land use2 Forest spp. Initial soil C (g C/m2) Final soil C
(g C/m2)
(g C/m2)
(% initial)
Augusta, WA 0-10 cm 4 3 1 E. globulus 4974 5422 448 9.01
0-20 cm 7772 8540 768 9.88
10-20 cm 2798 3118 320 11.44
Nigeria 0-10 cm 3 1 2 Succession 1482 1188 -293 -19.81
0-30 cm 3374 2954 -420 -12.44
10-30 cm 1892 1766 -126 -6.68

1Climate: 1 = Subtropical wet/Savanna; 3 = Mediterranean/Marine temperate.
2Ex-land use: 1 = Ex-pasture; 2 = Ex-crops.

For related work, see:

  • Polgase et al. (2000) Change in Soil Carbon Following Afforestation or Reforestation. National Carbon Accounting System Technical Report No. 20, Australian Greenhouse Office.
  • Paule et al. (2003) Predicted change in soil carbon following afforestation or reforestation, and analysis of controlling factors by linking a C accounting model (CAMFor) to models of forest growth (3PG), litter decompoistion (GENDEC) and soil C turnover (RothC) Forest Ecology and Management 177: 485-501.
  • Paul et al. (2003) Sensitivity analysis of predicted change in soil carbon following afforestation Ecological Modelling 164:137-152.

lak 04/2003