Controls on Soil Organic Carbon Stocks and Turnover Among North American Ecosystems

Douglas A. Frank, Alyssa W. Pontes, Karis J. McFarlane

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

30 Scopus citations


Despite efforts to understand the factors that determine soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks in terrestrial ecosystems, there remains little information on how SOC turnover time varies among ecosystems, and how SOC turnover time and C input, via plant production, differentially contribute to regional patterns of SOC stocks. In this study, we determined SOC stocks (gC m -2) and used soil radiocarbon measurements to derive mean SOC turnover time (years) for 0-10 cm mineral soil at ten sites across North America that included arctic tundra, northern boreal, northern and southern hardwood, subtropical, and tropical forests, tallgrass and shortgrass prairie, mountain grassland, and desert. SOC turnover time ranged 36-fold among ecosystems, and was much longer for cold tundra and northern boreal forest and dry desert (1277-2151 years) compared to other warmer and wetter habitats (59-353 years). Two measures of C input, net aboveground production (NAP), determined from the literature, and a radiocarbon-derived measure of C flowing to the 0-10 cm mineral pool, I, were positively and SOC turnover time was negatively associated with mean annual evapotranspiration (ET) among ecosystems. The best fit model generated from the independent variables NAP, I, annual mean temperature and precipitation, ET, and clay content revealed that SOC stock was best explained by the single variable I. Overall, these findings indicate the primary role that C input and the secondary role that C stabilization play in determining SOC stocks at large regional spatial scales and highlight the large vulnerability of the global SOC pool to climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)604-615
Number of pages12
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 1 2012


  • carbon turnover
  • climate change
  • radiocarbon
  • soil carbon
  • terrestrial ecosystems
  • terrestrial production

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology

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