• agricultural lands;
  • Monte Carlo simulation;
  • process-based model;
  • soil organic C;
  • uncertainty analysis


Process-based model analyses are often used to estimate changes in soil organic carbon (SOC), particularly at regional to continental scales. However, uncertainties are rarely evaluated, and so it is difficult to determine how much confidence can be placed in the results. Our objective was to quantify uncertainties across multiple scales in a process-based model analysis, and provide 95% confidence intervals for the estimates. Specifically, we used the Century ecosystem model to estimate changes in SOC stocks for US croplands during the 1990s, addressing uncertainties in model inputs, structure and scaling of results from point locations to regions and the entire country. Overall, SOC stocks increased in US croplands by 14.6 Tg C yr−1 from 1990 to 1995 and 17.5 Tg C yr−1 during 1995 to 2000, and uncertainties were ±22% and ±16% for the two time periods, respectively. Uncertainties were inversely related to spatial scale, with median uncertainties at the regional scale estimated at ±118% and ±114% during the early and latter part of 1990s, and even higher at the site scale with estimates at ±739% and ±674% for the time periods, respectively. This relationship appeared to be driven by the amount of the SOC stock change; changes in stocks that exceeded 200 Gg C yr−1 represented a threshold where uncertainties were always lower than ±100%. Consequently, the amount of uncertainty in estimates derived from process-based models will partly depend on the level of SOC accumulation or loss. In general, the majority of uncertainty was associated with model structure in this application, and so attaining higher levels of precision in the estimates will largely depend on improving the model algorithms and parameterization, as well as increasing the number of measurement sites used to evaluate the structural uncertainty.