Links between erosion/sedimentation history and soil carbon cycling were examined in a highly erosive setting in Mississippi loess soils. We sampled soils on (relatively) undisturbed and cropped hillslopes and measured C, N, 14C, and CO2 flux to characterize carbon storage and dynamics and to parameterize Century and spreadsheet 14C models for different erosion and tillage histories. For this site, where 100 years of intensive cotton cropping were followed by fertilization and contour plowing, there was an initial and dramatic decline in soil carbon content from 1870 to 1950, followed by a dramatic increase in soil carbon. Soil erosion amplifies C loss and recovery: About 100% of the original, prehistoric soil carbon was likely lost over 127 years of intensive land use, but about 30% of that carbon was replaced after 1950. The eroded cropland was therefore a local sink for CO2 since the 1950s. However, a net CO2 sink requires a full accounting of eroded carbon, which in turn requires that decomposition rates in lower slopes or wetlands be reduced to about 20% of the upland value. As a result, erosion may induce unaccounted sinks or sources of CO2, depending on the fate of eroded carbon and its protection from decomposition. For erosion rates typical of the United States, the sink terms may be large enough (1 Gt yr-1, back-of-the-envelope) to warrant a careful accounting of site management, cropping, and fertilization histories, as well as burial rates, for a more meaningful global assessment.
Additional publication details
Dynamic replacement and loss of soil carbon on eroding cropland