Pyrogenic carbon: Is it a sink in the global carbon cycle? And why we can’t be sure

Matthew Jones, Alysha Coppola, Cristina Santín

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Fires play a critical role in modulating the quantity and quality of carbon (C) stored in the terrestrial biosphere, including in aboveground vegetation and soils. Via riverine transport routes, fires also affect the quantity and quality of C delivered to the global oceans.

The mission of this talk is to set the scene on the multifaceted ways in which fire impacts the global C cycle, with a special focus on the widely-overlooked role of pyrogenic C.

We will begin by summarising how fires impact on terrestrial stores of C, starting with natural cycles of disturbance and recovery that influence total stocks of C on the terrestrial landscape. We will then demonstrate how shifting fire regimes, related to climate change and changes in land use, are perturbing the cycle of C and influencing the quantity of C stored on the landscape. Increased fire frequency and intensity generally promotes a loss of C from landscapes, especially in cases where vegetation cannot recover completely in the shortening time available between disturbance events.

Set within the broader cycle of biogenic C is a sub-cycle of highly recalcitrant ‘pyrogenic’ C – a by-product of incomplete combustion during fires. We will highlight how the special properties of this pyrogenic C promote its longevity in terrestrial stores in a manner that can offset (or ‘buffer’) losses of total C. The process of pyrogenic C storage has been widely overlooked in models of the global C cycle leading to C accounting errors, however we will highlight some recent examples of its implementation in land surface models and the lessons learned from doing so.

Due to its exceptional longevity in terrestrial pools, pyrogenic C has enhanced odds of reaching the global oceans via rivers. We will discuss the disproportionate export of pyrogenic C to the global oceans (relative to biogenic C) and how this leads to an unusual potential for long-term C sequestration.

Finally, we will provide an overview of the current understanding of the global budget of pyrogenic C, integrating best estimates for the fluxes of C to and from terrestrial stores and to and from marine stores. We will also highlight how uncertainties in the magnitude of fluxes in the C cycle lead to poor understanding of whether pyrogenic C currently acts as a sink or source of C to the atmosphere. We will underscore the particular need to constrain the decomposition rates and residence times of pyrogenic C in soils and marine stores if we are to build a complete picture of its role in the global C cycle.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 14 Apr 2024
EventEuropean Geosciences Union, General Assembly 2024 - Vienna
Duration: 14 Apr 202419 Apr 2024


ConferenceEuropean Geosciences Union, General Assembly 2024

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