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Changes in the Carbon Content of Terrestrial Biota and Soils between 1860 and 1980: A Net Release of CO"2 to the Atmosphere

R. A. Houghton, J. E. Hobbie, J. M. Melillo, B. Moore, B. J. Peterson, G. R. Shaver and G. M. Woodwell
Ecological Monographs
Vol. 53, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), pp. 235-262
Published by: Wiley
DOI: 10.2307/1942531
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1942531
Page Count: 28
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Changes in the Carbon Content of Terrestrial Biota and Soils between 1860 and 1980: A Net Release of CO"2 to the Atmosphere
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Abstract

Changes in land use over the past two centuries have caused a significant release of CO"2 to the atmosphere from the terrestrial biota and soils. An analysis of this release is based on amounts of organic carbon within an ecosystem following changes such as harvest of forests; it is also based on rates of changes, such as conversion of forest to agriculture, deduced from agricultural and forestry statistics. A model is used to calculate the net amount of carbon stored or released each year by the biota and soils of 69 regional ecosystems. Some of the changes, such as afforestation, the growth of harvested forests, and buildup of soil organic matter, result in a storage of carbon; others, such as harvest of forests and increase in pasture and agricultural areas, result in a loss of carbon to the atmosphere. According to this analysis, there has been a net release of carbon from terrestrial ecosystems worldwide since at least 1860. Until @?1960, the annual release was greater than release of carbon from fossil fuels. The total net release of carbon from terrestrial ecosystems since 1860 is estimated to have been 180 x 10^1^5 g (a range of estimates is 135-228 x 10^1^5 g). The estimated net release of carbon in 1980 was 1.8-4.7 x 10^1^5 g; for the 22 yr since 1958 the release of C was 38-76 x 10^1^5 g. The ranges reflect the differences among various estimates of forest biomass, soil carbon, and agricultural clearing. Improvements in the data on the clearing of tropical forests alone would reduce the range of estimates for 1980 by almost 60%. Estimates of the other major terms in the global carbon budget, the atmospheric increase in CO"2, the fossil fuel release of CO"2, and the oceanic uptake of CO"2, are all subject to uncertainties. The combined errors in these estimates are large enough that the global carbon budget appears balanced if the low estimate for the biotic release of carbon given above is used (1.8 x 10^1^5 g released in 1980) with the higher estimates of oceanic uptake. If higher estimates for biotic release are used, then the carbon budget does not balance, and the estimates of oceanic uptake or of other factors require revision.

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