Deep-C storage: Biological, chemical and physical strategies to enhance carbon stocks in agricultural subsoils

Erik S. Button, JenniferPett-Ridge, Daniel V.Murphy, Yakov Kuzyakov, David R.Chadwick, Davey L.Jones

Soil Biology and Biochemistry



Due to their substantial volume, subsoils contain more of the total soil carbon (C) pool than topsoils. Much of this C is thousands of years old, suggesting that subsoils offer considerable potential for long-term C sequestration. However, knowledge of subsoil C behaviour and manageability remains incomplete, and subsoil C storage potential has yet to be realised at a large scale, particularly in agricultural systems. A range of biological (e.g. deep-rooting), chemical (e.g. biochar burial) and physical (e.g. deep ploughing) C sequestration strategies have been proposed, but are yet to be assessed. In this review, we identify the main factors that regulate subsoil C cycling and critically evaluate the evidence and mechanistic basis of subsoil strategies designed to promote greater C storage, with particular emphasis on agroecosystems. We assess the barriers and opportunities for the implementation of strategies to enhance subsoil C sequestration and identify 5 key current gaps in scientific understanding. We conclude that subsoils, while highly heterogeneous, are in many cases more suited to long-term C sequestration than topsoils. The proposed strategies may also bring other tangible benefits to cropping systems (e.g. enhanced water holding capacity and nutrient use efficiency). Furthermore, while the subsoil C sequestration strategies we reviewed have large potential, more long-term studies are needed across a diverse range of soils and climates, in conjunction with chronosequence and space-for-time substitutions. Also, it is vital that subsoils are more consistently included in modelled estimations of soil C stocks and C sequestration potential, and that subsoil-explicit C models are developed to specifically reflect subsoil processes. Finally, further mapping of subsoil C is needed in specific regions (e.g. in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South and Central America, South Asia and Africa). Conducting both immediate and long-term subsoil C studies will fill the knowledge gaps to devise appropriate soil C sequestration strategies and policies to help in the global fight against climate change and decline in soil quality. In conclusion, our evidence-based analysis reveals that subsoils offer an untapped potential to enhance global C storage in terrestrial ecosystems.