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Controlling factors of organic carbon stocks in agricultural topsoils and subsoils of Bavaria

Mayer, Stefanie, Kühnel, Anna, Burmeister, Johannes, Kögel-Knabner, Ingrid, Wiesmeier, Martin
Soil & tillage research 2019 v.192 pp. 22-32
agricultural soils, algorithms, carbon dioxide, carbon sinks, clay fraction, climatic factors, data collection, ecosystem services, food security, groundwater, land use, landforms, models, organic carbon, soil erosion, soil profiles, soil water, temperate soils, tillage, topography, topsoil, uncertainty, variance, Central European region, Germany
Agricultural soils are highly important organic carbon (OC) reservoirs in Central Europe. Their OC stocks are crucial for a wide range of ecosystem services such as food security or climate regulation through atmospheric CO2 storage. There is increasing evidence that the controlling factors of OC stocks may differ between topsoil and subsoil, but distinct knowledge about the factors at a regional scale for temperate soils is scarce. In order to identify the controlling factors of OC storage in agricultural soils we implemented a random forest model on a data set of 692 soil profiles located in Bavaria, Southeast Germany. We differentiated between topsoil (0–30 cm profile depth) and subsoil (30–100 cm) and predicted OC stocks (kg OC m−2) using 13 predictor variables including soil type, topographical factors, climatic factors and information on land use. The explained variance of the topsoil random forest was higher than that of the subsoil (51 and 23%, respectively). The fact that major proportions of the variance in the modelling of subsoil OC remained unexplained, revealed high uncertainties that persist about subsoil OC storage. OC storage of both, topsoils and subsoils, was to a large extend determined by four factors: land use history, soil type, major landform and topographic wetness index (TWI). Climatic factors as well as clay content had surprisingly low impact on the model. Topsoil OC was mainly controlled by the legacy of the land use resulting in highest stocks under permanent grassland use. In contrast, soil type and topographical factors, i.e. major landform and TWI, largely determined subsoil OC stocks. The topography indicates the lateral transport of OC due to soil erosion and its subsequent deposition in low lying landform positions. There, high soil moisture as indicated by the TWI, hampers the decomposition of the OC. Human activities such as tillage amplify the lateral OC transport and therefore the amount of buried OC. As a result of these processes, highest subsoil stocks were found in alluvial, colluvial and groundwater affected soils. The findings demonstrate the close link between the generic soil type, topography, land use and OC stocks. We further conclude that the legacy of human activities affect both, topsoil and subsoil OC storage.