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Soil organic carbon stocks and sequestration rates of inland, freshwater wetlands: Sources of variability and uncertainty

August 3, 2020

Impacts of land use, specifically soil disturbance, are linked to reductions of soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks. Correspondingly, ecosystem restoration is promoted to sequester SOC to mitigate anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, which are exacerbating global climate change. Restored wetlands have relatively high potential to sequester carbon compared to other ecosystems, but SOC accumulation rates are variable, which leads to high uncertainty in sequestration rates. To assess soil properties and carbon sequestration rates of freshwater mineral soil wetlands, we analyzed an extensive database of SOC concentrations from the Prairie Pothole Region (549 wetlands over 160,000 km2), which is considered one of the largest wetland ecosystems in North America. We demonstrate that SOC of wetland catchments varies among inner, transition, toe slope, and upland landscape positions (LSPs), as well as among land uses and soil depth segments. Soil organic carbon concentrations were greatest in the inner portion of the catchment (66 Mg ha−1) and progressively decrease towards the upland LSP (43 Mg ha−1). We also conducted a regional extrapolation based on LSP- and land-use-specific SOC stocks, and estimated that wetland and upland areas of PPR wetland catchments contain 141 and 178 Tg of SOC in the upper 15 cm of the soil profile, respectively. Regressing SOC by restoration age (years restored) showed that sequestration rates, which differ by LSP and depth, ranged from 0.35 to 1.10 Mg ha−1 year−1. Using these SOC sequestration rates, along with data from natural and cropland reference sites, we estimated that it takes 20 to 64 years for SOC levels of restored wetlands to return to natural reference conditions, depending on LSP and depth segment. Accounting for LSP reduces uncertainty and should refine future assessments of the greenhouse gas mitigation potential from wetland restoration.