The role of soil erosion in the global carbon cycle remains a contested subject. A new approach to the retrospective derivation of erosion-induced quantitative fluxes of carbon between soil and atmosphere is presented and applied. The approach is based on the premise that soil redistribution perturbs the carbon cycle by driving disequilibrium between soil carbon content and input. This perturbation is examined by establishing the difference between measured carbon inventories and the inventories that would be found if input and content were in dynamic equilibrium. The carbon inventory of a profile in dynamic equilibrium is simulated by allowing lateral and vertical redistribution of carbon but treating all other profile inputs as equal to outputs. Caesium-137 is used to derive rates of vertical and lateral soil redistribution. Both point and field-scale estimates of carbon exchange with the atmosphere are derived using the approach for a field subject to mechanized agricultural in the United Kingdom. Sensitivity analysis is undertaken and demonstrates that the approach is robust. The results indicate that, despite a 15% decline in the carbon content of the cultivation layer of the eroded part of the field, this area has acted as a net sink of 11 ± 2 g C m−2 yr−1 over the last half century and that in the field as a whole, soil redistribution has driven a sink of 7 ± 2 g C m−2 yr−1 (6 ± 2 g C m−2 yr−1 if all eroded carbon transported beyond the field boundary is lost to the atmosphere) over the same period. This is the first empirical evidence for, and quantification of, dynamic replacement of eroded carbon. The relatively modest field-scale net sink is more consistent with the identification of erosion and deposition as a carbon sink than a carbon source. There is a clear need to assemble larger databases with which to evaluate critically the carbon sequestration potential of erosion and deposition in a variety of conditions of agricultural management, climate, relief, and soil type. In any case, this study demonstrated that the operation of erosion and deposition processes within the boundaries of agricultural fields must be understood as a key driver of the net carbon cycle consequences of cultivating land.
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