Evaluating the simulated mean soil carbon transit times by Earth system models using observations
One known bias in current Earth system models (ESMs) is the underestimation of global mean soil carbon (C) transit time (τsoil), which quantifies the age of the C atoms at the time they leave the soil. However, it remains unclear where such underestimations are located globally. Here, we constructed a global database of measured τsoil across 187 sites to evaluate results from 12 ESMs. The observations showed that the estimated τsoil was dramatically shorter from the soil incubation studies in the laboratory environment (median = 4 years; interquartile range = 1 to 25 years) than that derived from field in situ measurements (31; 5 to 84 years) with shifts in stable isotopic C (13C) or the stock-over-flux approach. In comparison with the field observations, the multi-model ensemble simulated a shorter median (19 years) and a smaller spatial variation (6 to 29 years) of τsoil across the same site locations. We then found a significant and negative linear correlation between the in situ measured τsoil and mean annual air temperature. The underestimations of modeled τsoil are mainly located in cold and dry biomes, especially tundra and desert. Furthermore, we showed that one ESM (i.e., CESM) has improved its τsoil estimate by incorporation of the soil vertical profile. These findings indicate that the spatial variation of τsoil is a useful benchmark for ESMs, and we recommend more observations and modeling efforts on soil C dynamics in regions limited by temperature and moisture.