Accurately quantifying changes in soil carbon (C) stocks with land-use change is important for estimating the anthropogenic fluxes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and for implementing policies such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) that provide financial incentives to reduce carbon dioxide fluxes from deforestation and land degradation. Despite hundreds of field studies and at least a dozen literature reviews, there is still considerable disagreement on the direction and magnitude of changes in soil C stocks with land-use change. We conducted a meta-analysis of studies that quantified changes in soil C stocks with land use in the tropics. Conversion from one land use to another caused significant increases or decreases in soil C stocks for 8 of the 14 transitions examined. For the three land-use transitions with sufficient observations, both the direction and magnitude of the change in soil C pools depended strongly on biophysical factors of mean annual precipitation and dominant soil clay mineralogy. When we compared the distribution of biophysical conditions of the field observations to the area-weighted distribution of those factors in the tropics as a whole or the tropical lands that have undergone conversion, we found that field observations are highly unrepresentative of most tropical landscapes. Because of this geographic bias we strongly caution against extrapolating average values of land-cover change effects on soil C stocks, such as those generated through meta-analysis and literature reviews, to regions that differ in biophysical conditions
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