Carbon sequestration in soils that have previously been depleted of organic matter due to agriculture is an important component of global strategies to mitigate rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Extensive areas of low productivity farmland have been abandoned from agriculture in eastern North America and elsewhere over the past century, and are naturally regenerating to temperate forests. We investigated the soil carbon sequestration potential of such lands by sampling adjacent mature forest and agricultural field sites, and replicated chronosequences of forest succession on Podzol, Brunisol, and Luvisol soil types that are considered ‘marginal’ for agriculture and have been abandoned extensively across southeastern Ontario, Canada. Total soil organic carbon and nitrogen stocks to 10 cm depth were approximately 32% and 18% lower, respectively, in agricultural fields compared to mature forests. Furthermore, carbon stocks across our 100-year chronosequences increased most within the 0–5 cm soil depth interval, tended to increase within the 5–10 cm interval, and were unaltered within the 10–20 cm interval. Soil type had little effect on the potential magnitude or rates of soil carbon sequestration (~10 g C m−2 y−1 in the top 10 cm), perhaps because all sites shared a common vegetation successional pattern. Finally, our investigations of the ‘labile’ free-light carbon and nitrogen fractions in the Brunisol soil type indicated no increases across the chronosequence, implying that soil carbon accumulation was primarily in more recalcitrant pools. Our results indicate that each of these low productivity soil types can be moderate carbon sinks for a century following agricultural abandonment, and strongly suggest that time since abandonment is more important than soil type in determining the potential magnitude of carbon sequestration within this climatic region.
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