Soil carbon and nitrogen mineralization: Theory and models across scales

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

542 Scopus citations


In the last 80 years, a number of mathematical models of different level of complexity have been developed to describe biogeochemical processes in soils, spanning spatial scales from few μm to thousands of km and temporal scales from hours to centuries. Most of these models are based on kinetic and stoichiometric laws that constrain elemental cycling within the soil and the nutrient and carbon exchange with vegetation and the atmosphere. While biogeochemical model performance has been previously assessed in other reviews, less attention has been devoted to the mathematical features of the models, and how these are related to spatial and temporal scales. In this review, we consider ∼250 biogeochemical models, highlighting similarities in their theoretical frameworks and illustrating how their mathematical structure and formulation are related to the spatial and temporal scales of the model applications. Our analysis shows that similar kinetic and stoichiometric laws, formulated to mechanistically represent the complex underlying biochemical constraints, are common to most models, providing a basis for their classification. Moreover, a historic analysis reveals that the complexity and degree and number of nonlinearities generally increased with date, while they decreased with increasing spatial and temporal scale of interest. We also found that mathematical formulations specifically developed for certain scales (e.g., first order decay rates assumed in yearly time scale decomposition models) often tend to be used also at other spatial and temporal scales different from the original ones, possibly resulting in inconsistencies between theoretical formulations and model application. It is thus critical that future modeling efforts carefully account for the scale-dependence of their mathematical formulations, especially when applied to a wide range of scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1355-1379
Number of pages25
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Soil Science


  • Decomposition
  • Decomposition models
  • Heterotrophic respiration
  • Microbial biomass
  • Mineralization-immobilization turnover
  • Model classification
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Spatial and temporal scales
  • Stoichiometry


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