Analysis of soil carbon transit times and age distributions using network theories

Stefano Manzoni, Gabriel G. Katul, Amilcare Porporato

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


The long-term soil carbon dynamics may be approximated by networks of linear compartments, permitting theoretical analysis of transit time (i.e., the total time spent by a molecule in the system) and age (the time elapsed since the molecule entered the system) distributions. We compute and compare these distributions for different network. configurations, ranging from the simple individual compartment, to series and parallel linear compartments, feedback systems, and models assuming a continuous distribution of decay constants. We also derive the transit time and age distributions of some complex, widely used soil carbon models (the compartmental models CENTURY and Rothamsted, and the continuous-quality Q-Model), and discuss them in the context of long-term carbon sequestration in soils. We show how complex models including feedback loops and slow compartments have distributions with heavier tails than simpler models. Power law tails emerge when using continuous-quality models, indicating long retention times for an important fraction of soil carbon. The responsiveness of the soil system to changes in decay constants due to altered climatic conditions or plant species composition is found to be stronger when all compartments respond equally to the environmental change, and when the slower compartments are more sensitive than the faster ones or lose more carbon through microbial respiration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberG04025
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2009
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Materials Chemistry
  • Polymers and Plastics
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry


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