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Tropical forest restoration: fast resilience of plant biomass contrasts with slow recovery of stable soil C stocks


Tropical forest soils worldwide contain more carbon than the atmosphere but unfortunately, these soil carbon stocks are often reduced or depleted during deforestation and land-use change. Rapid tree growth in plantations or young secondary tropical forests can sequester large amounts of carbon but we know little about the recovery of soil carbon stocks after disturbance.

To investigate this, scientist in South China Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Science, measured different stocks of soil carbon in a secondary forest and a Eucalyptus plantation, which were established on severely degraded land in China in the 1960s. The secondary forest had similar carbon stocks in trees and surface soil layers compared to old-growth forest. However, most of the carbon in the soil was still relatively new and the amount of older stabilized carbon stored in deeper soil layers was still much lower than in old-growth forest. In addition, repeated harvesting in plantations slowed the recovery of soil C stocks compared to secondary forest. We conclude that the loss of primary tropical forests greatly reduces carbon storage in the soil, which could take hundreds of years to recover and current calculations are likely to overestimate soil carbon storage in secondary tropical forests and plantations.

This study was recently published in Functional Ecology .



Figure. The bare land before restoration in 1959 (A) and Eucalyptus plantation (B) and restored secondary forest (C) at the Xiaoliang Station, China in 2009. Photos by Zuoyue Yu (A) and Faming Wang (B,C)


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