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Journal of Environmental Quality Abstract - Plant and Environment Interactions

Spatial Variability of Soil Carbon in Forested and Cultivated Sites


This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 32 No. 1, p. 278-286
    Received: Feb 23, 2002

    * Corresponding author(s): conant@nrel.colostate.edu
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  1. Richard T. Conant *a,
  2. Gordon R. Smithb and
  3. Keith Paustiana
  1. a Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State Univ., Fort Collins, CO 80523-1499
    b Environmental Resources Trust, 209 NW 58th Street, Seattle, WA 98107-2030


The potential to sequester atmospheric carbon in agricultural and forest soils to offset greenhouse gas emissions has generated interest in measuring changes in soil carbon resulting from changes in land management. However, inherent spatial variability of soil carbon limits the precision of measurement of changes in soil carbon and hence, the ability to detect changes. We analyzed variability of soil carbon by intensively sampling sites under different land management as a step toward developing efficient soil sampling designs. Sites were tilled cropland and a mixed deciduous forest in Tennessee, and old-growth and second-growth coniferous forest in western Washington, USA. Six soil cores within each of three microplots were taken as an initial sample and an additional six cores were taken to simulate resampling. Soil C variability was greater in Washington than in Tennessee, and greater in less disturbed than in more disturbed sites. Using this protocol, our data suggest that differences on the order of 2.0 Mg C ha−1 could be detected by collection and analysis of cores from at least five (tilled) or two (forest) microplots in Tennessee. More spatial variability in the forested sites in Washington increased the minimum detectable difference, but these systems, consisting of low C content sandy soil with irregularly distributed pockets of organic C in buried logs, are likely to rank among the most spatially heterogeneous of systems. Our results clearly indicate that consistent intramicroplot differences at all sites will enable detection of much more modest changes if the same microplots are resampled.

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Copyright © 2003. American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Soil Science SocietyPublished in J. Environ. Qual.32:278–286.