Most of our terrestrial carbon (C) storage occurs in soils as organic C derived from living organisms. Therefore, the fate of soil organic C (SOC) in response to changes in climate, land use, and management is of great concern. Here we provide a unified conceptual model for SOC cycling by gathering the available information on SOC sources, dissolved organic C (DOC) dynamics, and soil biogeochemical processes. The evidence suggests that belowground C inputs (from roots and microorganisms) are the dominant source of both SOC and DOC in most ecosystems. Considering our emerging understanding of SOC protection mechanisms and long-term storage, we highlight the present need to sample (often ignored) deeper soil layers. Contrary to long-held biases, deep SOC—which contains most of the global amount and is often hundreds to thousands of years old—is susceptible to decomposition on decadal timescales when the environmental conditions under which it accumulated change. Finally, we discuss the vulnerability of SOC in different soil types and ecosystems globally, as well as identify the need for methodological standardization of SOC quality and quantity analyses. Further study of SOC protection mechanisms and the deep soil biogeochemical environment will provide valuable information about controls on SOC cycling, which in turn may help prioritize C sequestration initiatives and provide key insights into climate-carbon feedbacks.
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