Soil organic carbon (SOC) displaced by soil erosion is the subject of much current research and the fundamental question, whether accelerated soil erosion is a source or sink of atmospheric CO2, remains unresolved. A toposequence of terraced fields as well as a long slope was selected from hilly areas of the Sichuan Basin, China to determine effects of soil redistribution rates and processes on SOC stocks and dynamics. Soil samples for the determination of caesium-137 (137Cs), SOC, total N and soil particle size fractions were collected at 5 m intervals along a transect down the two toposequences. 137Cs data showed that along the long slope transect soil erosion occurred in upper and middle slope positions and soil deposition appeared in the lower part of the slope. Along the terraced transect, soil was lost over the upper parts of the slopes and deposition occurred towards the downslope boundary on each terrace, resulting in very abrupt changes in soil redistribution over short distances either side of terrace boundaries that run parallel with the contour on the steep slopes. These data reflect a difference in erosion process; along the long slope transect, water erosion is the dominant process, while in the terraced landscape soil distribution is mainly the result of tillage erosion. SOC inventories (mass per unit area) show a similar pattern to the 137Cs inventory, with relatively low SOC content in the erosional sites and high SOC content in depositional areas. However, in the terraced field landscape C/N ratios were highest in the depositional areas, while along the long slope transect, C/N ratios were highest in the erosional areas. When the samples are subdivided based on 137Cs-derived erosion and deposition data, it is found that the erosional areas have similar C/N ratios for both toposequences, while the C/N ratios in depositional areas are significantly different from each other. These differences are attributed to the difference in soil erosion processes; tillage erosion is mainly responsible for high-SOC inventories at depositional positions on terraced fields, whereas water erosion plays a primary role in SOC storage at depositional positions on the long slope. These data support the theory that water erosion may cause a loss of SOC due to selective removal of the most labile fraction of SOC, while on the other hand tillage erosion only transports the soil over short distances with less effect on the total SOC stock.
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