Farming collapse in Russia boosted soil carbon storage

Finding the silver lining in political conflict surrounding Russia, past or present, can be difficult. But the collapse of collective farming as the Soviet Union broke up in the 1990s created what may be the largest carbon sink project in modern history.

Globally, soil stores more carbon than above ground biomass and the atmosphere combined. Twenty percent of soil carbon stocks are in Russia. When land is plowed, especially using conventional tillage methods, those stocks are released into the air and contribute to global warming. The abrupt cessation of farming on 45.5 million hectares of arable land added up to big carbon savings.

global carbon storage

Soil scientists estimated the net carbon change in Russian soils for the first twenty years after the collapse. Using GIS data and the known sequestration rates for five soil groups, they calculated an average annual sequestration rate of 42.6 million metric tons. The impressive soil stocks are equivalent to 10 to 20 percent of the annual sink in all Russian forests and could offset about 10 percent of Russia’s current fossil fuel emissions.

While the sudden change in land use was good for the carbon equation, the storage rate of those soils diminishes over time. The authors predicted that over the next 30 years, the average annual carbon sequestration for the same land would be only 8.7 metric tons. The likelihood that the land will remain abandoned is also diminishing. Other nations are purchasing unused Russian land with the expectation that climate change will push growing seasons in their favor. While mass land abandonment is not a realistic long-term solution to the climate crisis, it is a reminder that sometimes doing less is more. Miles Becker | 14 March 2014

Source: Kurganova, I. et al. 2014. Carbon cost of collective farming collapse in Russia. Global Change Biology doi: 10.1111/gcb.12379

Photo ©  Jason Rogers

Image ©  Grid Arendal