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Soil carbon stock and its changes in northern China's grasslands from 1980s to 2000s


Jingyun Fang, tel. +86 10 6276 5578, fax +86 10 6275 6560, e-mail:


Climate warming is likely to accelerate the decomposition of soil organic carbon (SOC) which may lead to an increase of carbon release from soils, and thus provide a positive feedback to climate change. However, SOC dynamics in grassland ecosystems over the past two decades remains controversial. In this study, we estimated the magnitude of SOC stock in northern China's grasslands using 981 soil profiles surveyed from 327 sites across the northern part of the country during 2001–2005. We also examined the changes of SOC stock by comparing current measurements with historical records of 275 soil profiles derived from China's National Soil Inventory during the 1980s. Our results showed that, SOC stock in the upper 30 cm in northern China's grasslands was estimated to be 10.5 Pg C (1 Pg=1015 g), with an average density (carbon stock per area) of 5.3 kg C m−2. SOC density (SOCD) did not show significant association with mean annual temperature, but was positively correlated with mean annual precipitation. SOCD increased with soil moisture and reached a plateau when soil moisture was above 30%. Site-level comparison indicated that grassland SOC stock did not change significantly over the past two decades, with a change of 0.08 kg C m−2, ranging from −0.30 to 0.46 kg C m−2 at 95% confidence interval. Transect-scale comparison confirmed that grassland SOC stock remained relatively constant from 1980s to 2000s, suggesting that soils in northern China's grasslands have been carbon neutral over the last 20 years.