How does uncertainty of soil organic carbon stock affect the calculation of carbon budgets and soil carbon credits for croplands in the U.S. Midwest?

Wang Zhou, Kaiyu Guan, Bin Peng, Andrew Margenot, Do Kyoung Lee, Jinyun Tang, Zhenong Jin, Robert Grant, Evan DeLucia, Ziqi Qin, Michelle M. Wander, Sheng Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Cropland carbon budget depicts the amount of carbon flowing in and out of agroecosystems and the changes in carbon stocks of soil and living biomass during the same period. Soil carbon credit is the additional change in soil carbon stock under certain farming practices compared with the business-as-usual practices. Accurately calculating cropland carbon budget and soil carbon credit is critical to assessing climate change mitigation potential in agroecosystems. The calculation of cropland carbon budget and soil carbon credit is sensitive to local soil and climatic conditions, especially initial soil organic carbon (SOC) stock, which is determined by both SOC concentration (SOC%) and bulk density (Bulk_Density). SOC stock data are either from soil sampling or gridded public survey data. In agroecosystem models, SOC stock data are a key model input for quantifying cropland carbon budget and soil carbon credit. However, various types and degrees of uncertainties exist in SOC stock datasets, which propagate to the quantification of SOC stock change. In particular, a large discrepancy is found in two widely used SOC stock datasets — Rapid Carbon Assessment dataset (RaCA) and Gridded Soil Survey Geographic Database (gSSURGO) — in the U.S. Midwest, with a relative difference (quantified using Normalized Root Mean Square Error, NRMSE) of 48.0% for 0–30 cm SOC stock between the two datasets. It remains largely unclear how uncertainty in SOC stocks affects the calculation of cropland carbon budget and soil carbon credit. To address this question, we used a well-validated process-based agroecosystem model, ecosys, to assess the impacts of SOC stock uncertainty on carbon budget and soil carbon credit calculation in the U.S. Midwestern corn-soybean rotation systems. Our results reveal the following findings: (1) A sizable discrepancy exists in simulated cropland carbon budget between using gSSURGO and using RaCA for their SOC% and Bulk_Density as model inputs, with a Pearson correlation coefficient (r) of only 0.4 for simulated change of SOC stock (ΔSOC) using these two different soil datasets. (2) Simulated cropland carbon budget components were more sensitive to initial SOC% than to Bulk_Density. For example, the upper and lower quartiles of multi-year averaged ΔSOC were −29.8 and 4.8 gC/m2/year for the selected counties respectively, with an uncertainty of 13.7 and 0.7 gC/m2/year induced by uncertainties in initial SOC% and Bulk_Density, respectively. (3) Both simulated ΔSOC and its uncertainty were negatively correlated with initial SOC%, whereas ΔSOC was negatively correlated with air temperature, and ΔSOC uncertainty was positively correlated with air temperature. (4) The uncertainty of calculated soil carbon credits was much smaller compared with the uncertainty of calculated absolute carbon budgets assuming the same SOC stock uncertainty level in the inputs. Specifically, in our assessment comparing planting cover crops vs no cover crop, the uncertainty of calculated soil carbon credits induced by initial SOC% uncertainty was less than 4% (relative to the quantified value of the soil carbon credits) for 90% of the cases. Our analysis highlights that high accuracy measurement of SOC% as inputs is needed for the calculation of cropland carbon budgets; however, soil carbon credit quantification is much less sensitive to the initial SOC% inputs, and the current publicly available soil datasets (e.g., gSSURGO) are largely suitable for the calculation of soil carbon credits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number116254
StatePublished - Jan 1 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by Hue University Strong Research Teams (Conservation and Development of Medicinal Plant and Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) Resources)-03 Le Loi str., Hue city, Vietnam.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s)


  • Agroecosystem
  • Carbon budgets
  • Process-based model
  • Soil carbon credits
  • Soil organic carbon
  • Uncertainty


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