The estimation of soil carbon content is of pressing concern for soil protection and in mitigation strategies for global warming. This paper describes the methodology developed and the results obtained in a study aimed at estimating organic carbon contents (%) in topsoils across Europe. The information presented in map form provides policy-makers with estimates of current topsoil organic carbon contents for developing strategies for soil protection at regional level. Such baseline data are also of importance in global change modelling and may be used to estimate regional differences in soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks and projected changes therein, as required for example under the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, after having taken into account regional differences in bulk density.

The study uses a novel approach combining a rule-based system with detailed thematic spatial data layers to arrive at a much-improved result over either method, using advanced methods for spatial data processing. The rule-based system is provided by the pedo-transfer rules, which were developed for use with the European Soil Database. The strong effects of vegetation and land use on SOC have been taken into account in the calculations, and the influence of temperature on organic carbon contents has been considered in the form of a heuristic function. Processing of all thematic data was performed on harmonized spatial data layers in raster format with a 1 km × 1 km grid spacing. This resolution is regarded as appropriate for planning effective soil protection measures at the European level. The approach is thought to be transferable to other regions of the world that are facing similar questions, provided adequate data are available for these regions. However, there will always be an element of uncertainty in estimating or determining the spatial distribution of organic carbon contents of soils.