Estimating litter carbon stocks on forest land in the United States

Grant M. Domke, Charles H. Perry, Brian F. Walters, Christopher W. Woodall, Matthew B. Russell, James E. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Forest ecosystems are the largest terrestrial carbon sink on earth, with more than half of their net primary production moving to the soil via the decomposition of litter biomass. Therefore, changes in the litter carbon (C) pool have important implications for global carbon budgets and carbon emissions reduction targets and negotiations. Litter accounts for an estimated 5% of all forest ecosystem carbon stocks worldwide. Given the cost and time required to measure litter attributes, many of the signatory nations to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change report estimates of litter carbon stocks and stock changes using default values from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or country-specific models. In the United States, the country-specific model used to predict litter C stocks is sensitive to attributes on each plot in the national forest inventory, but these predictions are not associated with the litter samples collected over the last decade in the national forest inventory. Here we present, for the first time, estimates of litter carbon obtained using more than 5000 field measurements from the national forest inventory of the United States. The field-based estimates mark a 44% reduction (2081 ± 77 Tg) in litter carbon stocks nationally when compared to country-specific model predictions reported in previous United Framework Convention on Climate Change submissions. Our work suggests that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defaults and country-specific models used to estimate litter carbon in temperate forest ecosystems may grossly overestimate the contribution of this pool in national carbon budgets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)469-478
Number of pages10
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Published by Elsevier B.V.


  • Carbon budget
  • Forest floor
  • Greenhouse gas
  • National forest inventory
  • United Framework Convention on Climate Change


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