Soil carbon has traditionally been associated with soil organic carbon (SOC), while soil inorganic carbon (SIC) has often been overlooked. However, a groundbreaking study published in Science has brought attention to the significant role that SIC plays in the global carbon cycle. Led by Prof. Huang Yuanyuan and Prof. Zhang Ganlin, researchers have quantified a staggering 2,305 billion tons of carbon stored as SIC in the top two meters of soil worldwide, surpassing the carbon content of all vegetation on Earth. This challenges the long-held belief that SIC is not as important as SOC.

Despite its massive storage capacity, SIC is vulnerable to environmental changes, particularly soil acidification. Prof. Huang warns that industrial activities and intensive farming practices in countries like China and India are contributing to soil acidification, putting this hidden reservoir of carbon at risk. The dissolution of calcium carbonate in the presence of acids can release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or water, disrupting the delicate balance of the soil ecosystem.

The disturbance of SIC can have far-reaching impacts on soil health and ecosystem functioning. The ability of soil to regulate acidity, nutrient levels, and support plant growth is compromised when SIC is depleted. This underscores the dual role that SIC plays in both storing carbon and sustaining vital ecosystem services. The loss of approximately 1.13 billion tons of inorganic carbon from soils to water bodies each year further highlights the interconnectedness of carbon cycles on land and in the atmosphere.

While efforts to combat climate change have focused primarily on SOC, the study emphasizes the importance of incorporating SIC into mitigation strategies. The “4 per mille initiative,” which aims to increase SOC levels annually, should also consider the critical role of SIC in maintaining sustainable soil management practices and enhancing carbon sequestration. By broadening our understanding of soil carbon dynamics to include both organic and inorganic components, researchers hope to develop more effective strategies for mitigating climate change and preserving soil health.

The study’s findings serve as a wake-up call for the scientific community and policymakers to recognize the overlooked importance of soil inorganic carbon in the global carbon cycle. As threats to SIC continue to mount due to human activities, urgent action is needed to safeguard this essential component of soil health and ecosystem functioning. By integrating SIC into climate change mitigation strategies, we can enhance our ability to sequester carbon, support sustainable soil management, and mitigate the impacts of climate change on Earth’s ecosystems.


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