Soils' dirty little secret: Depth-based comparisons can be inadequate for quantifying changes in soil organic carbon and other mineral soil properties

Adam C. von Haden, Wendy H. Yang, Evan H. DeLucia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Quantifying changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks and other soil properties is essential for understanding how soils will respond to land management practices and global change. Although they are widely used, comparisons of SOC stocks at fixed depth (FD) intervals are subject to errors when changes in bulk density or soil organic matter occur. The equivalent soil mass (ESM) method has been recommended in lieu of FD for assessing changes in SOC stocks in mineral soils, but ESM remains underutilized for SOC stocks and has rarely been used for other soil properties. In this paper, we draw attention to the limitations of the FD method and demonstrate the advantages of the ESM approach. We provide illustrations to show that the FD approach is susceptible to errors not only for quantifying SOC stocks but also for soil mass-based properties such as SOC mass percent, C:N mass ratio, and δ13C. We describe the ESM approach and show how it mitigates the FD method limitations. Using bulk density change simulations applied to an empirical dataset from bioenergy cropping systems, we show that the ESM method provides consistently lower errors than FD when quantifying changes in SOC stocks and other soil properties. To simplify the use of ESM, we detail how the method can be integrated into sampling schemes, and we provide an example R computer script that can perform ESM calculations on large datasets. We encourage future studies, whether temporal or comparative, to utilize sampling methods that are amenable to the ESM approach. Overall, we agree with previous recommendations that ESM should be the standard method for evaluating SOC stock changes in mineral soils, but we further suggest that ESM may also be preferred for comparisons of other soil properties including mass percentages, elemental mass ratios, and stable isotope composition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3759-3770
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020


  • carbon accounting
  • carbon stocks
  • carbon-to-nitrogen ratio
  • equivalent soil mass
  • soil isotopic composition
  • soil organic carbon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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