Monitoring changes in global soil organic carbon stocks from space

15 September 2022

Soils are under threat globally, with declining soil productivity and soil health in many places. As a key indicator of soil functioning, soil organic carbon (SOC) is crucial for ensuring food, soil, water and energy security, together with biodiversity protection. While there is a global effort to map SOC stock and status, SOC is a dynamic soil property and can change rapidly as a function of land management and land use. Here, we introduce a semi-mechanistic model to monitor SOC stocks at a global scale, underpinned by one of the largest worldwide soil database to date. Our model generates a SOC stock baseline for the year 2001, which is then propagated through time by keeping track of annual landcover changes obtained from remote sensing products with loss and gain dynamics dependent on temperature and precipitation, which finally define the magnitude, rate and direction of the SOC changes. We estimated a global SOC stock in the top 30~cm of around 793 Pg with annual losses due to landcover change of 1.9 Pg SOC/yr from 2001 to 2020, 20% larger than the annual production-based emissions of the United States in 2018. The biggest losses were found in the tropic and sub-tropical regions, accounting for almost 50% of the total global loss. This is a considerable contribution to greenhouse gas emissions but it also has a direct impact on agricultural production with more than 16 million hectares per year falling below critical SOC limits. The proposed modelling framework is flexible, allowing it to be updated as more remote sensing and soil data becomes available, offering a first-of-its-kind global spatio-temporal SOC stock assessment and monitoring system.