Australian climate-carbon cycle feedback reduced by soil black carbon

Johannes Lehmann, Jan Skjemstad, Saran Sohi, John Carter, Michele Barson, Pete Falloon, Kevin Coleman, Peter Woodbury, Evelyn Krull

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Annual emissions of carbon dioxide from soil organic carbon are an order of magnitude greater than all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions taken together(1). Global warming is likely to increase the decomposition of soil organic carbon, and thus the release of carbon dioxide from soils(2-5), creating a positive feedback(6-9). Current models of global climate change that recognize this soil carbon feedback are inaccurate if a larger fraction of soil organic carbon than postulated has a very slow decomposition rate. Here we show that by including realistic stocks of black carbon in prediction models, carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 18.3 and 24.4% in two Australian savannah regions in response to a warming of 3 degrees C over 100 years(1). This reduction in temperature sensitivity, and thus the magnitude of the positive feedback, results from the long mean residence time of black carbon, which we estimate to be approximately 1,300 and 2,600 years, respectively. The inclusion of black carbon in climate models is likely to require spatially explicit information about its distribution, given that the black carbon content of soils ranged from 0 to 82% of soil organic carbon in a continental-scale analysis of Australia. We conclude that accurate information about the distribution of black carbon in soils is important for projections of future climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)832-835
Number of pages4
JournalNature Geoscience
Issue number12
Early online date16 Nov 2008
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2008


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