Soil organic carbon storage as a key function of soils - A review of drivers and indicators at various scales

Martin Wiesmeier, Livia Urbanski, Eleanor Hobley, Birgit Lang, Margit von Lützow, Erika Marin-Spiotta, Bas van Wesemael, Eva Rabot, Mareike Ließ, Noelia Garcia-Franco, Ute Wollschläger, Hans Jörg Vogel, Ingrid Kögel-Knabner

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1009 Scopus citations


The capacity of soils to store organic carbon represents a key function of soils that is not only decisive for climate regulation but also affects other soil functions. Recent efforts to assess the impact of land management on soil functionality proposed that an indicator- or proxy-based approach is a promising alternative to quantify soil functions compared to time- and cost-intensive measurements, particularly when larger regions are targeted. The objective of this review is to identify measurable biotic or abiotic properties that control soil organic carbon (SOC) storage at different spatial scales and could serve as indicators for an efficient quantification of SOC. These indicators should enable both an estimation of actual SOC storage as well as a prediction of the SOC storage potential, which is an important aspect in land use and management planning. There are many environmental conditions that affect SOC storage at different spatial scales. We provide a thorough overview of factors from micro-scales (particles to pedons) to the global scale and discuss their suitability as indicators for SOC storage: clay mineralogy, specific surface area, metal oxides, Ca and Mg cations, microorganisms, soil fauna, aggregation, texture, soil type, natural vegetation, land use and management, topography, parent material and climate. As a result, we propose a set of indicators that allow for time- and cost-efficient estimates of actual and potential SOC storage from the local to the regional and subcontinental scale. As a key element, the fine mineral fraction was identified to determine SOC stabilization in most soils. The quantification of SOC can be further refined by including climatic proxies, particularly elevation, as well as information on land use, soil management and vegetation characteristics. To enhance its indicative power towards land management effects, further “functional soil characteristics” particularly soil structural properties and changes in the soil microbial biomass pool should be included in this indicator system. The proposed system offers the potential to efficiently estimate the SOC storage capacity by means of simplified measures, such as soil fractionation procedures or infrared spectroscopic approaches.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-162
Number of pages14
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2019


  • Clay mineralogy
  • Climate
  • Land use and management
  • Metal oxides
  • Microorganisms
  • Natural vegetation
  • Parent material
  • Soil aggregation
  • Soil fauna
  • Soil texture
  • Soil type
  • Specific surface area
  • Topography


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