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Controls on carbon storage and weathering in volcanic soils across a high-elevation climate gradient on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

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Volcanic ash soils retain the largest and most persistent soil carbon pools of any ecosystem. However, the mechanisms governing soil carbon accumulation and weathering during initial phases of ecosystem development are not well understood. We examined soil organic matter dynamics and soil development across a high-altitude (3,560-3,030 m) 20-kyr climate gradient on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Four elevation sites were selected (~250-500 mm rainfall), which range from sparsely vegetated to sites that contain a mix of shrubs and grasses. At each site, two or three pits were dug and major diagnostic horizons down to bedrock (intact lava) were sampled. Soils were analyzed for particle size, organic C and N, soil pH, exchangeable cations, base saturation, NaF pH, phosphorous sorption, and major elements. Mass loss and pedogenic metal accumulation (hydroxlamine Fe, Al, and Si extractions) were used to measure extent of weathering, leaching, changes in soil mineralogy and carbon accumulation. Reactive-phase (SRO) minerals show a general trend of increasing abundance with increasing rainfall. However carbon accumulation patterns across the climate gradient are largely decoupled from these trends. The results suggest that after 20 kyr, pedogenic processes have altered the nature and composition of the volcanic ash such that it is capable of retaining soil C even where organic acid influences from plant material and leaching from rainfall are severely limited. Carbon storage comparisons with lower-elevation soils on Mauna Kea and other moist mesic (2,500 mm rainfall) sites on Hawaii suggest that these soils have reached only between 1% and 15% of their capacity to retain carbon. Our results suggest that, after 20 kyr in low rainfall and a cold climate, weathering was decoupled from soil carbon accumulation patterns and the associated influence of vegetation on soil development. Overall, we conclude that the rate of carbon supply to the subsoil (driven by coupling of rainfall above ground plant production) is a governing factor of forms and amount of soil organic matter accumulation, while soil mineralogy remained relatively uniform.

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