A global analysis of root distributions for terrestrial biomes

R. B. Jackson, J. Canadell, J. R. Ehleringer, H. A. Mooney, O. E. Sala, E. D. Schulze

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2177 Scopus citations


Understanding and predicting ecosystem functioning (e.g., carbon and water fluxes) and the role of soils in carbon storage requires an accurate assessment of plant rooting distributions. Here, in a comprehensive literature synthesis, we analyze rooting patterns for terrestrial biomes and compare distributions for various plant functional groups. We compiled a database of 250 root studies, subdividing suitable results into 11 biomes, and fitted the depth coefficient β to the data for each biome (Gale and Grigal 1987). β is a simple numerical index of rooting distribution based on the asymptotic equation Y = 1-β(d), where d = depth and Y = the proportion of roots from the surface to depth d. High values of β correspond to a greater proportion of roots with depth. Tundra, boreal forest, and temperate grasslands showed the shallowest rooting profiles (β = 0.913, 0.943, and 0.943, respectively), with 80-90% of roots in the top 30 cm of soil; deserts and temperate coniferous forests showed the deepest profiles (β = 0.975 and 0.976, respectively) and had only 50% of their roots in the upper 30 cm. Standing root biomass varied by over an order of magnitude across biomes, from approximately 0.2 to 5 kg m-2. Tropical evergreen forests had the highest root biomass (5 kg m-2), but other forest biomes and sclerophyllous shrublands were of similar magnitude. Root biomass for croplands, deserts, tundra and grasslands was below 1.5 kg m-2. Root/shoot (R/S) ratios were highest for tundra, grasslands, and cold deserts (ranging from 4 to 7); forest ecosystems and croplands had the lowest R/S ratios (approximately 0.1 to 0.5). Comparing data across biomes for plant functional groups, grasses had 44% of their roots in the top 10 cm of soil (β = 0.952), while shrubs had only 21% in the same depth increment (β = 0.978). The rooting distribution of all temperate and tropical trees was β = 0.970 with 26% of roots in the top 10 cm and 60% in the top 30 cm. Overall, the globally averaged root distribution for all ecosystems was β = 0.966 (r2 = 0.89) with approximately 30%, 50%, and 75% of roots in the top 10 cm, 20 cm, and 40 cm, respectively. We discuss the merits and possible shortcomings of our analysis in the context of root biomass and root functioning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)389-411
Number of pages23
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Cumulative root fraction
  • Root biomass
  • Rooting density
  • Soil depth
  • Terrestrial biomes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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