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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Background: In most regions and ecosystems, soils are the largest terrestrial carbon pool. Their potential vulnerability to climate and land use change, management, and other drivers, along with soils’ ability to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, makes them important to carbon balance and management. To date, most studies of soil carbon management have been based at either large or site-specific scales, resulting in either broad generalizations or narrow conclusions, respectively. Advancing the science and practice of soil carbon management requires scientific progress at intermediate scales. Here, we conducted the fifth in a series of ecoregional assessments of the effects of land use change and forest management on soil carbon stocks, this time addressing the Northeast U.S. We used synthesis approaches including (1) meta-analysis of published literature, (2) soil survey and (3) national forest inventory databases to examine overall effects and underlying drivers of deforestation, reforestation, and forest harvesting on soil carbon stocks. The three complementary data sources allowed us to quantify direction, magnitude, and uncertainty in trends. Results: Our meta-analysis findings revealed regionally consistent declines in soil carbon stocks due to deforestation, whether for agriculture or urban development. Conversely, reforestation led to significant increases in soil C stocks, with variation based on specific geographic factors. Forest harvesting showed no significant effect on soil carbon stocks, regardless of place-based or practice-specific factors. Observational soil survey and national forest inventory data generally supported meta-analytic harvest trends, and provided broader context by revealing the factors that act as baseline controls on soil carbon stocks in this ecoregion of carbon-dense soils. These factors include a range of soil physical, parent material, and topographic controls, with land use and climate factors also playing a role. Conclusions: Forest harvesting has limited potential to alter forest soil C stocks in either direction, in contrast to the significant changes driven by land use shifts. These findings underscore the importance of understanding soil C changes at intermediate scales, and the need for an all-lands approach to managing soil carbon for climate change mitigation in the Northeast U.S.

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© The Author(s) 2024. Publisher’s version of record:

Publication Title

Carbon Balance and Management

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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