Recent improvements in our understanding of the dynamics of soil carbon have shown that 20–40% of the approximately 1,500 Pg of C stored as organic matter in the upper meter of soils has turnover times of centuries or less. This fast-cycling organic matter is largely comprised of undecomposed plant material and hydrolyzable components associated with mineral surfaces. Turnover times of fast-cycling carbon vary with climate and vegetation, and range from <20 years at low latitudes to >60 years at high latitudes. The amount and turnover time of C in passive soil carbon pools (organic matter strongly stabilized on mineral surfaces with turnover times of millennia and longer) depend on factors like soil maturity and mineralogy, which, in turn, reflect long-term climate conditions. Transient sources or sinks in terrestrial carbon pools result from the time lag between photosynthetic uptake of CO2 by plants and the subsequent return of C to the atmosphere through plant, heterotrophic, and microbial respiration. Differential responses of primary production and respiration to climate change or ecosystem fertilization have the potential to cause significant interrannual to decadal imbalances in terrestrial C storage and release. Rates of carbon storage and release in recently disturbed ecosystems can be much larger than rates in more mature ecosystems. Changes in disturbance frequency and regime resulting from future climate change may be more important than equilibrium responses in determining the carbon balance of terrestrial ecosystems.