Belowground carbon allocation in forests estimated from litterfall and IRGA-based soil respiration measurements

E. A. Davidson, K. Savage, P. Bolstad, D. A. Clark, P. S. Curtis, D. S. Ellsworth, P. J. Hanson, B. E. Law, Y. Luo, K. S. Pregitzer, J. C. Randolph, D. Zak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

249 Scopus citations


Allocation of C to belowground plant structures is one of the most important, yet least well quantified fluxes of C in terrestrial ecosystems. In a literature review of mature forests worldwide, Raich and Nadelhoffer (1989) suggested that total belowground carbon allocation (TBCA) could be estimated from the difference between annual rates of soil respiration and aboveground litterfall. Here we analyze new measurements of soil respiration and litterfall, including data from the Ameriflux network. Our results generally agree with Raich and Nadelhoffer's previous work. A regression analysis of data from mature forests produced the following relationship: annual soil respiration = 287 + 2.80 × annual litterfall. This regression slope indicates that, on average, soil respiration is roughly three times aboveground litterfall-C, which further implies that TBCA is roughly twice annual aboveground litterfall-C. These inferences are based on the uncertain assumption of soil C stocks being at steady state. Nevertheless, changes in soil C would have to be very large to modify the conclusion that TBCA is generally much larger than litterfall. Among only mature temperate hardwood forests, however, the correlation between litterfall and soil respiration was poor, and the correlation among years for a single site was also poor. Therefore, the regression cannot be relied upon to provide accurate estimates of soil respiration or TBCA for individual sites. Moreover, interannual variation in TBCA, short-term changes in C stocks, or different temporal scales controlling leaf litter production and soil respiration may cause important deviations from the global average. The regression slope for data from young forests is steeper, possibly indicating proportionally greater TBCA, but the steady-state assumption is more problematic for young forests. This method for estimating TBCA may be most appropriate where interannual variation is averaged over several years of observations and where a near-steady-state assumption of soil, litter, and root C stocks is least problematic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)39-51
Number of pages13
JournalAgricultural and Forest Meteorology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Dec 2 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Carbon cycling
  • Carbon dioxide (CO)
  • Forest ecosystems
  • Forest soil
  • Infrared gas analyzers
  • Roots
  • Soil carbon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Atmospheric Science


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