Geography and Sustainability, Volume 1, March 2020,
Soil organic carbon (SOC) in croplands is a key property of soil quality for ensuring food security and agricultural sustainability, and also plays a central role in the global carbon (C) budget. When managed sustainably, soils may play a critical role in mitigating climate change by sequestering C and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. However, the magnitude and spatio-temporal patterns of global cropland SOC are far from well constrained due to high land surface heterogeneity, complicated mechanisms, and multiple influencing factors. Here, we use a process-based agroecosystem model (DLEM-Ag) in combination with diverse spatially-explicit gridded environmental data to quantify the long-term trend of SOC storage in global cropland area during 1901-2010 and identify the relative impacts of climate change, elevated CO2, nitrogen deposition, land cover change, and land management practices such as nitrogen fertilizer use and irrigation. Model results show that the total SOC and SOC density in the 2000s increased by 125% and 48.8%, respectively, compared to the early 20th century. This SOC increase was primarily attributed to cropland expansion and nitrogen fertilizer use. Factorial analysis suggests that climate change reduced approximately 3.2% (or 2,166 Tg C) of the total SOC over the past 110 years. Our results indicate that croplands have a large potential to sequester C through implementing better land use management practices, which may partially offset SOC loss caused by climate change.