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

Soil carbon sequestration potential of permanent pasture and continuous cropping soils in New Zealand

McNally, S. R., Beare, M. H., Curtin, D., Meenken, E. D., Kelliher, F. M., Calvelo Pereira, R.,Baldock, J. (2017). Soil carbon sequestration potential of permanent pasture and continuous cropping soils in New Zealand. Global Change Biology, 23(11), 4544-4555.


Understanding soil organic carbon (SOC) sequestration is important to develop strategies to increase the SOC stock and, thereby, offset some of the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Although the capacity of soils to store SOC in a stable form is commonly attributed to the fine (clay + fine silt) fraction, the properties of the fine fraction that determine the SOC stabilization capacity are poorly known. The aim of this study was to develop an improved model to estimate the SOC stabilization capacity of Allophanic (Andisols) and non‐Allophanic topsoils (0–15 cm) and, as a case study, to apply the model to predict the sequestration potential of pastoral soils across New Zealand. A quantile (90th) regression model, based on the specific surface area and extractable aluminium (pyrophosphate) content of soils, provided the best prediction of the upper limit of fine fraction carbon (FFC) (i.e. the stabilization capacity), but with different coefficients for Allophanic and non‐Allophanic soils. The carbon (C) saturation deficit was estimated as the difference between the stabilization capacity of individual soils and their current C concentration. For long‐term pastures, the mean saturation deficit of Allophanic soils (20.3 mg C g−1) was greater than that of non‐Allophanic soils (16.3 mg C g−1). The saturation deficit of cropped soils was 1.14–1.89 times that of pasture soils. The sequestration potential of pasture soils ranged from 10 t C ha−1 (Ultic soils) to 42 t C ha−1(Melanic soils). Although meeting the estimated national soil C sequestration potential (124 Mt C) is unrealistic, improved management practices targeted to those soils with the greatest sequestration potential could contribute significantly to off‐setting New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions. As the first national‐scale estimate of SOC sequestration potential that encompasses both Allophanic and non‐Allophanic soils, this serves as an informative case study for the international community.

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