Large amounts of total organic carbon are temporarily stored in soils, which makes soil respiration one of the major sources of terrestrial CO.sub.2 fluxes within the global carbon cycle. More than half of global soil organic carbon (SOC) is stored in subsoils (below 30 cm), which represent a significant carbon (C) pool. Although several studies and models have investigated soil respiration, little is known about the quantitative contribution of subsoils to total soil respiration or about the sources of CO.sub.2 production in subsoils. In a 2-year field study in a European beech forest in northern Germany, vertical CO.sub.2 concentration profiles were continuously measured at three locations, and CO.sub.2 production was quantified in the topsoil and the subsoil. To determine the contribution of fresh litter-derived C to CO.sub.2 production in the three soil profiles, an isotopic labelling experiment, using .sup.13 C-enriched leaf litter, was performed. Additionally, radiocarbon measurements of CO.sub.2 in the soil atmosphere were used to obtain information about the age of the C source in the CO.sub.2 production. At the study site, it was found that 90 % of total soil respiration was produced in the first 30 cm of the soil profile, where 53 % of the SOC stock is stored. Freshly labelled litter inputs in the form of dissolved organic matter were only a minor source for CO.sub.2 production below a depth of 10 cm. In the first 2 months after litter application, fresh litter-derived C contributed, on average, 1 % at 10 cm depth and 0.1 % at 150 cm depth to CO.sub.2 in the soil profile. Thereafter, its contribution was less than 0.3 % and 0.05 % at 10 and 150 cm depths, respectively. Furthermore CO.sub.2 in the soil profile had the same modern radiocarbon signature at all depths, indicating that CO.sub.2 in the subsoil originated from young C sources despite a radiocarbon age bulk SOC in the subsoil. This suggests that fresh C inputs in subsoils, in the form of roots and root exudates, are rapidly respired, and that other subsoil SOC seems to be relatively stable. The field labelling experiment also revealed a downward diffusion of .sup.13 CO.sub.2 in the soil profile against the total CO.sub.2 gradient. This isotopic dependency should be taken into account when using labelled .sup.13 C and .sup.14 C isotope data as an age proxy for CO.sub.2 sources in the soil.