Drylands (hyperarid, arid, semiarid, and dry subhumid ecosystems) cover almost half of Earth’s land surface and are highly vulnerable to environmental pressures. Here we provide an inventory of soil properties including carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) stocks within the current boundaries of drylands, aimed at serving as a benchmark in the face of future challenges including increased population, food security, desertification, and climate change. Aridity limits plant production and results in poorly developed soils, with coarse texture, low C:N and C:P, scarce organic matter, and high vulnerability to erosion. Dryland soils store 646 Pg of organic C to 2 m, the equivalent of 32% of the global soil organic C pool. The magnitude of the historic loss of C from dryland soils due to human land use and cover change and their typically low C:N and C:P suggest high potential to build up soil organic matter, but coarse soil textures may limit protection and stabilization processes. Restoring, preserving, and increasing soil organic matter in drylands may help slow down rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide by sequestering C, and is strongly needed to enhance food security and reduce the risk of land degradation and desertification.
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