New Study Finds Soil Carbon Losses Nearly Equal to Total Emissions from Deforestation

FALMOUTH – The first effort to quantify soil carbon loss revealed that agriculture has removed 133 billion tons of carbon from the top 2 meters of soil, with the rate of loss increasing dramatically in the past 200 years.

Those soil carbon losses are nearly equal to total carbon emissions due to forest clearing.

The study was published this week in PNAS, and was led by Dr. Jonathan Sanderman of the Woods Hole Research Center and Tom Hengl of the soil data organization ISRIC.

The large soil carbon debt can be thought of as the maximum potential for soils to remove carbon from the atmosphere and act as a natural climate solution.

Even realizing only a fraction of this potential would be an important climate mitigation strategy, Sanderman said.

The study also showed that cropping causes more soil carbon loss on a particular parcel of land but because grazing covers so much land surface, total losses from cropping and grazing are nearly equal.

For the study, the scientists used a machine learning-based model, a global compilation of soil carbon data, and the History Database of the Global Environment land use data.

The Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration and economic development around the globe.

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