Forest soil carbon is threatened by intensive biomass harvesting

Forests play a key role in the carbon cycle as they store huge quantities of organic carbon, most of which is stored in soils, with a smaller part being held in vegetation. While the carbon storage capacity of forests is influenced by forestry, the long-term impacts of forest managers’ decisions on soil organic carbon (SOC) remain unclear. Using a meta-analysis approach, we showed that conventional biomass harvests preserved the SOC of forests, unlike intensive harvests where logging residues were harvested to produce fuelwood. Conventional harvests caused a decrease in carbon storage in the forest floor, but when the whole soil profile was taken into account, we found that this loss in the forest floor was compensated by an accumulation of SOC in deeper soil layers. Conversely, we found that intensive harvests led to SOC losses in all layers of forest soils. We assessed the potential impact of intensive harvests on the carbon budget, focusing on managed European forests. Estimated carbon losses from forest soils suggested that intensive biomass harvests could constitute an important source of carbon transfer from forests to the atmosphere (142–497 Tg-C), partly neutralizing the role of a carbon sink played by forest soil

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