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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Controls on black carbon storage in soils


[1] Fire-derived black carbon (BC: charcoal and soot) has been thought to be a passive player in soils, contributing to the refractory soil organic carbon (SOC) pool, but playing no role in pedogenesis and regional short-term carbon cycling. This model, however, is at odds with recent results on the role of charcoal in soil fertility and its detection in the dissolved organic carbon (DOC) pool. For example, if BC simply accumulated passively in soils, its pattern of accumulation should match a simple model correlating fire frequency to BC storage. Instead, soil type, climate, biota, and land use practices all appear to play roles in controlling whether BC accumulates or is lost from soils. We summarize current knowledge of BC-soil interactions and construct a new paradigm describing the controls on BC storage in soils. We reconcile the refractory-labile BC paradox by proposing a model where BC storage is controlled by (1) fire frequency, (2) ecosystem presence or absence of aromatic precursor carbon and appropriate combustion conditions, (3) biological or physical mixing to remove BC from the soil surface, where it is vulnerable to combustion in future fires, (4) the presence or absence of soil mineral fractions able to sorb BC into the long-term stable carbon pool, and (5) the presence of microbial communities capable of degrading aromatic carbon. We also recognize that soil BC/SOC ratios are strongly influenced by land-use practices and add (6) human activities as a final control.

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