The conversion of land from its native state to an agricultural use commonly results in a significant loss of soil carbon (Mann, 1985; Davidson and Ackerman, 1993). Globally, this loss is estimated to account for as much as 1/3 of the net CO2 emissions for the period of 1850 to 1980 (Houghton et al, 1983). Roughly 20 to 40 percent of original soil carbon is estimated to be lost as CO2 as a result of agricultural conversion, or 'decomposition enhancement', and global models use this estimate along with land conversion data to provide agricultural contributions of CO2 emissions for global carbon budgets (Houghton and others, 1983; Schimel, 1995).
As yet, erosional losses of carbon are not included in global carbon budgets explicitly as a factor in land conversion nor implicitly as a portion of the decomposition enhancement. However, recent work by Lal et al (1995) and by Stallard (1998) suggests that significant amounts of eroded soil may be stored in man-made reservoirs and depositional environments as a result of agricultural conversion. Moreover, Stallard points out that if eroding soils have the potential for replacing part of the carbon trapped in man-made reservoirs, then the global carbon budget may grossly underestimate or ignore a significant sink term resulting from the burial of eroded soil.
Soil erosion rates are significantly (10X) higher on croplands than on their undisturbed equivalents (Dabney et al, 1997). Most of the concern over erosion is related to diminished productivity of the uplands (Stallings, 1957; McGregor et al, 1993; Rhoton and Tyler, 1990) or to increased hazards and navigability of the lowlands in the late 1800's to early 1900's. Yet because soil carbon is concentrated at the soil surface, with an exponential decline in concentration with depth, it is clear that changes in erosion rates seen on croplands must also impact soil carbon storage and terrestrial carbon budgets as well.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Mississippi Basin Carbon Project; upland soil database for sites in Yazoo Basin, northern Mississippi
U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey,