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Forest Ecology and Management
Volume 108, Issues 1-2 , 20 August 1998, Pages 147-166

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doi:10.1016/S0378-1127(98)00222-9    How to Cite or Link Using DOI (Opens New Window)  
Copyright © 1998 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved

Soil carbon changes from conversion of forest to pasture in Brazilian Amazonia

Philip M. Fearnsidea, * and Reinaldo Imbrozio Barbosab

a Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Coordenadoria de Pesquisas em Ecologia, Caixa Postal 478, 69011-970 Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil
b Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Núcleo de Pesquisas de Roraima, Caixa Postal 96, 69301-970 Boa Vista, Roraima, Brazil

Received 15 September 1997; accepted 16 December 1997. Available online 15 January 1999.


Soils in Brazilian Amazonia may contain up to 136 Gt of carbon to a depth of 8 m, of which 47 Gt are in the top meter. The current rapid conversion of Amazonian forest to cattle pasture makes disturbance of this carbon stock potentially important to the global carbon balance and net greenhouse gas emissions. Information on the response of soil carbon pools to conversion to cattle pasture is conflicting. Some of the varied results that have been reported can be explained by effects of soil compaction, clay content and seasonal changes. Most studies have compared roughly simultaneous samples taken at nearby sites with different use histories (i.e., ‘chronosequences'); a clear need exists for longitudinal studies in which soil carbon stocks and related parameters are monitored over time at fixed locations. Whether pasture soils are a net sink or a net source of carbon depends on their management, but an approximation of the fraction of pastures under ‘typical' and ‘ideal' management practices indicates that pasture soils in Brazilian Amazonia are a net carbon source, with the upper 8 m releasing an average of 12.0 t C/ha in land maintained as pasture in the equilibrium landscape that is established in the decades following deforestation. Considering the equilibrium landscape as a whole, which is dominated by pasture and secondary forest derived from pasture, the average net release of soil carbon is 8.5 t C/ha, or 11.7×106 t C for the 1.38×106 ha cleared in 1990. Only 3% of the calculated emission comes from below 1 m depth, but the ultimate contribution from deep layers may be substantially greater. The land area affected by soil C losses under pasture is not restricted to the portion of the region maintained under pasture in the equilibrium landscape, but also the portion under secondary forests derived from pasture. Pasture effects from deforestation in 1990 represent a net committed emission from soils of 9.2×106 t C, or 79% of the total release from soils from deforestation in that year. Soil emissions from Amazonian deforestation represent a quantity of carbon approximately 20% as large as Brazil's annual emission from fossil fuels.

Author Keywords: Soil carbon; Amazonia; Deforestation; Tropical forest; Greenhouse gases; Global warming; Pasture; Organic matter; Brazil; Carbon dioxide

Article Outline

1. Introduction: the tropical soil carbon controversy
2. Land-use conversion in Brazilian Amazonia
3. Soil carbon changes
3.1. Short-term effects of conversion
3.2. Establishment of a new equilibrium
3.3. Effects of pasture management regimes
4. Effects masking soil carbon changes
4.1. Fine-scale spatial variability
4.2. Correction for soil compaction
4.3. Correction for clay content
4.4. Humified versus non-humified material
4.5. Seasonal cycles
5. A best current estimate for Amazonia
5.1. Standardization for compaction and sample depth
5.2. Disaggregation by management regime
5.3. Effect of pasture on the equilibrium landscape
5.4. Robustness of the estimate
6. Conclusions

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Fig. 1. Brazil's Legal Amazon region and locations mentioned in the text.

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Fig. 2. Relationships between clay content changes and soil carbon. The sign by each arrow represents the direction of change in the quantity at the head of the arrow given an increase in the quantity at the tail of the arrow.

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Fig. 3. Principal seasonal effects on soil carbon stocks.

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Fig. 4. Sensitivity of soil carbon stock changes to the percentage of the actively managed pasture area that is under ideal management. This percentage is believed to be about 5%; an improbably high 40% would have to be under ideal management to turn pasture soils from a net source to a net sink of carbon. The scale at the right indicates the effect on the soil carbon stock in the 1.38×106 ha cleared in 1990 when converted to the equilibrium landscape (which includes agriculture and secondary forest, as well as pasture).

Table 1. Soil bulk density changes from conversion of forest to pasture Full Size Table

Table 2. Vertical distribution of carbon stock in Amazonian forest soils Full Size Table

Table 3. Soil carbon stocks at different locations in Brazilian Amazonia and implied long-term changes from conversion of forest to pasture Full Size Table

Table 4. Weighted average of regional changes in soil carbon Full Size Table

Table 5. Carbon stocks in soils under land uses in the equilibrium landscape Full Size Table

Table 6. Net committed emissions of soil carbon from deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia in 1990 Full Size Table


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Forest Ecology and Management
Volume 108, Issues 1-2 , 20 August 1998, Pages 147-166

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