Soil Carbon

Increasing the quantity of carbon stored in agricultural soils has the potential to offset emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, while soil carbon losses would further add to those emissions.

However, realising this mitigation potential is technically challenging when soil carbon stocks are already high (as they are in New Zealand), potential changes in soil carbon are small and spatial variability is high.

The current NZAGRC programme has three distinct components:

(1) testing specific management practices that may increase the long term soil carbon store in field situations;

(2) developing and using models to predict how a range of management practices may influence long and short tem soil carbon storage; and

(3) identifying those factors that influence the stability of current or newly added soil carbon.

We have also supported international work to map on farm soil carbon and will participate in the international research programme CIRCASA.

Principal Investigators

Dr David Whitehead, Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research (2010-present)
Professor Frank Kelliher, AgResearch (2010-2017)

Research Stories

Sixty years of seasonal irrigation affects carbon storage in soils beneath pasture grazed by sheep

Kelliher, F. M., Condron, L. M., Cook, F. J., & Black, A. (2012). Sixty years of seasonal irrigation affects carbon storage in soils beneath pasture grazed by sheep. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 148, 29-36


For sixty years at Winchmore, South Island, New Zealand (43°48′S, 171°48′E, 160 masl), stoney soils under continuous pasture grazing by sheep have received rainfall (nil irrigation) or rainfall and irrigation as required during summer. This consistently managed, replicated field trial presents a unique opportunity to examine long-term treatment effects on pastoral soil. Samples were recently excavated at intervals to a depth of 1 m and the total carbon (C) storage measured. In the irrigated plots, soil C storage (9.1 ± 0.3 kg C m−2, mean ± standard error, n = 3) was significantly less (p < 0.05) than in plots receiving rainfall alone (13.4 ± 0.8 kg C m−2). We estimated irrigation induced a 36% increase of C inputs to the soil on an annual basis, mostly as litter fall. Using a respiration model based on soil temperature and water content inputs, irrigation was also estimated to have induced a 97% increase in rate of annual C loss to the atmosphere. On this basis, the estimated irrigation effects had reduced C storage by 61% (97–36%), reasonably accounting for the 47% treatment effect determined by soil sampling.

Read more (external website)

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