The CO2 content of the atmosphere is increasing currently as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels and the oxidation of vegetation and soils associated with changes in the use of land. Prediction of the atmospheric CO2 concentration in the future requires a better understanding of how important these land-use changes are currently and how important they have been in the past. In this paper we present an analysis of past changes in the terrestrial biota and soils of the earth. The analysis is based on rates of forest harvest and regrowth, rates of land conversion to agriculture, and on the changes in biomass and soil carbon that accompany these uses of land. The results of the analysis show that changes in land use have caused a net release of carbon to the atmosphere that until recently was larger than the release from combustion of fossil fuels. There is still a large uncertainty in the analysis, however, largely because of conflicting reports as to the current rate of disappearance of tropical forests. We outline the kinds of information needed to improve the analysis and believe that remote sensing is of use immediately in reducing the range of uncertainty by a factor of two to four.

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