Carbon storage in successional and plantation forest soils: a tropical analysis


Correspondence: Erika Marín-Spiotta, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 550 North Park Street, Madison, WI 53706, USA.




To analyse global patterns in soil carbon (C) in tropical successional and plantation forests based on climate, forest age, former land use and soil type to determine factors driving below-ground C storage.




We conducted a synthesis of 81 studies reporting soil C stocks in more than 400 reforested and tree plantation sites. We used regression models and regression tree analyses to determine the importance of multiple predictor variables on soil C stocks standardized to three common depth ranges: 0–10, 0–30 and 0–100 cm.


Mean annual temperature (MAT) was the most important predictor of soil C. Forest age explained little to no variability in soil C, in contrast with above-ground studies. Data on long-term trends in soil C are limited, as median time since forest growth was 15 years. Soil C stocks were similar between tropical secondary forests, tree plantations and reference forests. Differences between plantation and successional forests only appeared below 10 cm on sites with MAT < 21.3 °C. Former pastures and cultivated sites differed from each other only to depths of 30 or 100 cm. Climatic variables appeared multiple times across all layers of the regression trees, consistent with strong interactions between MAT and precipitation on soil C stocks.

Main conclusions

Climate explained greater variability in soil C in successional and plantation forests than former land use or forest age, despite the tropical location of all sites. Human management factors were more important for predicting soil C stocks in cooler and drier sites, while environmental variables were more important in hotter and wetter sites. The relative importance and interactions between soil type, previous land use and forest cover type differed with soil depth, highlighting the importance of comparing C across consistent depths. Climatic controls suggest sensitivity of soil C stocks in successional and plantation forests to future climate change.