Soil carbon response to woody plant encroachment: importance of spatial heterogeneity and deep soil storage Academic Article uri icon


  • © 2017 The Authors. Journal of Ecology © 2017 British Ecological Society Recent global trends of increasing woody plant abundance in grass-dominated ecosystems may substantially enhance soil organic carbon (SOC) storage and could represent a strong carbon (C) sink in the terrestrial environment. However, few studies have quantitatively addressed the influence of spatial heterogeneity of vegetation and soil properties on SOC storage at the landscape scale. In addition, most studies assessing SOC response to woody encroachment consider only surface soils, and have not explicitly assessed the extent to which deeper portions of the soil profile may be sequestering C. We quantified the direction, magnitude and pattern of spatial heterogeneity of SOC in the upper 1·2 m of the profile following woody encroachment via spatially specific intensive soil sampling across a landscape in a subtropical savanna in the Rio Grande Plains, USA, that has undergone woody proliferation during the past century. Increased SOC accumulation following woody encroachment was observed to considerable depth, albeit at reduced magnitudes in deeper portions of the profile. Overall, woody clusters and groves accumulated 12·87 and 18·67 Mg C ha −1 more SOC compared to grasslands to a depth of 1·2 m. Woody encroachment significantly altered the pattern of spatial heterogeneity of SOC to a depth of 5 cm, with marginal effect at 5–15 cm, and no significant impact on soils below 15 cm. Fine root density explained greater variability of SOC in the upper 15 cm, while a combination of fine root density and soil clay content accounted for more of the variation in SOC in soils below 15 cm across this landscape. Synthesis. Substantial soil organic carbon sequestration can occur in deeper portions of the soil profile following woody encroachment. Furthermore, vegetation patterns and soil properties influenced the spatial heterogeneity and uncertainty of soil organic carbon in this landscape, highlighting the need for spatially specific sampling that can characterize this variability and enable scaling and modelling. Given the geographic extent of woody encroachment on a global scale, this undocumented deep soil carbon sequestration suggests this vegetation change may play a more significant role in regional and global carbon sequestration than previously thought.

published proceedings

  • Journal of Ecology

altmetric score

  • 6.75

author list (cited authors)

  • Zhou, Y., Boutton, T. W., & Wu, X. B

citation count

  • 31

complete list of authors

  • Zhou, Yong||Boutton, Thomas W||Wu, X Ben

publication date

  • April 2017