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Swift, Roger S.


Soil carbon is a major component of the terrestrial carbon cycle. The soils of the world contain more carbon than the combined total amounts occurring in vegetation and the atmosphere. Consequently, soils are a major reservoir of carbon and an important sink. Because of the relatively long period of time that carbon spends within the soil and is thereby withheld from the atmosphere, it is often referred to as being sequestered. Increasing the capacity of soils to sequester C provides a partial, medium-term countermeasure to help ameliorate the increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere arising from fossil fuel burning and land clearing. Such action will also help to alleviate the environmental impacts arising from increasing levels of atmospheric CO2. The C sequestration potential of any soil depends on its capacity to store resistant plant components in the medium term and to protect and accumulate the humic substances (HS) formed from the transformations or organic materials in the soil environment. The sequestration potential of a soil depends on the vegetation it supports, its mineralogical composition, the depth of the solum, soil drainage, the availability of water and air, and the temperature of the soil environment. The sequestration potential also depends on the chemical characteristics of the soil organic matter and its ability to resist microbial decomposition. When accurate information for these features is incorporated in model systems, the potentials of different soils to sequester C can be reliably predicted. It is encouraging to know that improved soil and crop management systems now allow field yields to be maintained and soil C reserves to be increased, even for soils with depleted levels of soil C. Estimates of the soil C sequestration potential are discussed. Inevitably HS are the major components of the additionally sequestered C. It will be important to know more about the compositions and associations of these substances in the soil if we are able to predict reasonably accurately the ability of any soil type to sequester C in different cropping and soil management systems.

Faculty of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Veterinary Science, University of Queensland, Qld. 4343, Australia. E-mail:

Received Sept. 5, 2001; accepted Sept. 6, 2001.

© 2001 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.