Modelling soil carbon and nitrogen cycles during land use change. A review

J. Batlle-Aguilar, A. Brovelli, A. Porporato, D. A. Barry

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Forested soils are being increasingly transformed to agricultural fields in response to growing demands for food crop. This modification of the land use is known to result in deterioration of soil properties, in particular its fertility. To reduce the impact of the human activities and mitigate their effects on the soil, it is important to understand the factors responsible for the modification of soil properties. In this paper we reviewed the principal processes affecting soil quality during land use changes, focusing in particular on the effect of soil moisture dynamics on soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycles. Both physical and biological processes, including degradation of litter and humus, and soil moisture evolution at the diurnal and seasonal time scales were considered, highlighting the impact of hydroclimatic variability on nutrient turnover along with the consequences of land use changes from forest to agricultural soil and vice-versa. In order to identify to what extent different models are suitable for long-term predictions of soil turnover, and to understand whether some simulators are more suited to specific environmental conditions or ecosystems, we enumerated the principal features of the most popular existing models dealing with C and N turnover. Among these models, we considered in detail a mechanistic compartment-based model. To show the capabilities of the model and to demonstrate how it can be used as a predictive tool to forecast the effects of land use changes on C and N dynamics, four different scenarios were studied, intertwining two different climate conditions (with and without seasonality) with two contrasting soils having physical properties that are representative of forest and agricultural soils. The model incorporates synthetic time series of stochastic precipitation, and therefore soil moisture evolution through time. Our main findings in simulating these scenarios are that (1) forest soils have higher concentrations of C and N than agricultural soils as a result of higher litter decomposition; (2) high frequency changes in water saturations under seasonal climate scenarios are commensurate with C and N concentrations in agricultural soils; and (3) due to their different physical properties, forest soils attenuate the seasonal climate-induced frequency changes in water saturation, with accompanying changes in C and N concentrations. The model was shown to be capable of simulating the long term effects of modified physical properties of agricultural soils, being thus a promising tool to predict future consequences of practices affecting sustainable agriculture, such as tillage (leading to erosion), ploughing, harvesting, irrigation and fertilization, leading to C and N turnover changes and in consequence, in terms of agriculture production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)251-274
Number of pages24
JournalAgronomy for Sustainable Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Agronomy and Crop Science


  • Agricultural soil
  • Biogeochemical cycles
  • Forest soil
  • Soil moisture dynamics
  • Soil nutrients
  • Soil organic matter
  • Soil restoration


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