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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Age of soil organic matter and soil respiration: radiocarbon constraints on belowground C dynamics

  • Author(s): Trumbore, Susan
  • et al.
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License

Radiocarbon data from soil organic matter and soil respiration provide powerful constraints for determining carbon dynamics and thereby the magnitude and timing of soil carbon response to global change. In this paper, data from three sites representing well-drained soils in boreal, temperate, and tropical forests are used to illustrate the methods for using radiocarbon to determine the turnover times of soil organic matter and to partition soil respiration. For these sites, the average age of bulk carbon in detrital and Oh/A-horizon organic carbon ranges from 200 to 1200 yr. In each case, this mass-weighted average includes components such as relatively undecomposed leaf, root, and moss litter with much shorter turnover times, and humified or mineral-associated organic matter with much longer turnover times. The average age of carbon in organic matter is greater than the average age predicted for CO2 produced by its decomposition (30, 8, and 3 yr for boreal, temperate, and tropical soil), or measured in total soil respiration (16, 3, and 1 yr). Most of the CO2 produced during decomposition is derived from relatively short-lived soil organic matter (SOM) components that do not represent a large component of the standing stock of soil organic matter. Estimates of soil carbon turnover obtained by dividing C stocks by heterotrophic respiration fluxes, or from radiocarbon measurements of bulk SOM, are biased to longer time scales of C cycling. Failure to account for the heterogeneity of soil organic matter will result in underestimation of the short-term response and overestimation of the long-term response of soil C storage to future changes in inputs or decomposition.

Comparison of the 14C in soil respiration with soil organic matter in temperate and boreal forest sites indicates a significant contribution from decomposition of organic matter fixed >2 yr but <30 yr ago. Tropical soil respiration is dominated by C fixed <1 yr ago. Monitoring the 14C signature of CO2 emitted from soils give clues as to the causes of seasonal and interannual variability in soil respiration in these systems.

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