Testing a practical indicator for changing soil organic matter


S. P. Sohi. E-mail: saran.sohi@ed.ac.uk


Long-term changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) resulting from management change are documented for many experimental situations, and corresponding trends in the field have been observed by national survey. Since these changes are relevant to atmospheric carbon balance a practical measure to confirm the impact of recent management decisions at any location, without resorting to repeated sampling, is highly attractive but none has previously been tested. This study assessed intra-aggregate C to fulfil the role, based on a temporary deviation from its predictable contribution to total SOC under stable management. A total of 166 surface soil samples (0–15 cm) were analyzed for intra-aggregate C using an established physical fractionation protocol or compatible scaled-up procedure. Soils were arable (or ley-arable) managed by conventional or minimum-tillage, or permanent grassland, and assigned ‘stable’ or ‘changing’ status on the basis of a verbal account of management history. Log-normal populations of intra-aggregate C were compared for soils of stable and changing status using F-tests. Intra-aggregate C shows promise as an indicator of changing SOC in arable soils up to 30% clay content, particularly soils <20% clay. A larger dataset is required to establish its utility in grassland soils. It is not certain that intra-aggregate C is capable of confirming direction of change or trajectory (endpoint), and functions to indicate change, rather than confirm stable status. Supplementary information on the history of soil use and management is therefore essential in the interpretation of such measurements.