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Abstract, Scientific Reports, 2018

The debate over whether soil erosion is a carbon (C) sink or atmospheric CO2 source remains highly controversial. For the first time, we report the magnitude of C stabilization associated with soil erosion control for an entire large river basin. The soil erosion of the Yellow River basin in northern China is among the most severe worldwide. Progressive soil conservation has been implemented by the Chinese government since the 1970s, including the largest ever revegetation programme, the Grain-for-Green Project, which began in 1999. Based on compiled hydrological records and organic carbon (OC) data, together with primary production estimates, we evaluated the sequestered OC resulting from soil conservation. Compared with that at baseline in 1950–1970, in which significant soil conservation did not occur, the fate of erosion-induced OC was substantially altered in the period from 2000–2015. Approximately 20.6 Tg of OC were effectively controlled per year by soil conservation efforts. Simultaneously, the decomposition of erosion-induced soil organic carbon (SOC) declined from 8 Tg C yr−1 to current 5.3 Tg C yr−1. The reduced C emissions (2.7 Tg C yr−1) within the Yellow River basin alone account for 12.7% of the mean C accumulation acquired via forest expansion throughout all of China previously assessed. If the accumulated C in restored plants and soils was included, then 9.7 Tg C yr−1 was reduced from the atmospheric C pool during this period, which represents a tremendous C-capturing benefit. Thus, the increased C storage obtained via soil conservation should be considered in future C inventories.