, Volume 51, Issue 1, pp 33-69

Soil carbon cycling in a temperate forest: radiocarbon-based estimates of residence times, sequestration rates and partitioning of fluxes

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Abstract

Temperate forests of North America are thought to besignificant sinks of atmospheric CO2. Wedeveloped a below-ground carbon (C) budget forwell-drained soils in Harvard Forest Massachusetts, anecosystem that is storing C. Measurements of carbonand radiocarbon (14C) inventory were used todetermine the turnover time and maximum rate ofCO2 production from heterotrophic respiration ofthree fractions of soil organic matter (SOM):recognizable litter fragments (L), humified lowdensity material (H), and high density ormineral-associated organic matter (M). Turnover timesin all fractions increased with soil depth and were2–5 years for recognizable leaf litter, 5–10 years forroot litter, 40–100+ years for low density humifiedmaterial and >100 years for carbon associated withminerals. These turnover times represent the timecarbon resides in the plant + soil system, and mayunderestimate actual decomposition rates if carbonresides for several years in living root, plant orwoody material.

Soil respiration was partitioned into two componentsusing 14C: recent photosynthate which ismetabolized by roots and microorganisms within a yearof initial fixation (Recent-C), and C that is respiredduring microbial decomposition of SOM that resides inthe soil for several years or longer (Reservoir-C).For the whole soil, we calculate that decomposition ofReservoir-C contributes approximately 41% of thetotal annual soil respiration. Of this 41%,recognizable leaf or root detritus accounts for 80%of the flux, and 20% is from the more humifiedfractions that dominate the soil carbon stocks.Measurements of CO2 and 14CO2 in thesoil atmosphere and in total soil respiration werecombined with surface CO2 fluxes and a soil gasdiffusion model to determine the flux and isotopicsignature of C produced as a function of soil depth. 63% of soil respiration takes place in the top 15 cmof the soil (O + A + Ap horizons). The average residencetime of Reservoir-C in the plant + soil system is8±1 years and the average age of carbon in totalsoil respiration (Recent-C + Reservoir-C) is 4±1years.

The O and A horizons have accumulated 4.4 kgC m−2above the plow layer since abandonment by settlers inthe late-1800's. C pools contributing the most to soilrespiration have short enough turnover times that theyare likely in steady state. However, most C is storedas humified organic matter within both the O and Ahorizons and has turnover times from 40 to 100+ yearsrespectively. These reservoirs continue to accumulatecarbon at a combined rate of 10–30 gC mminus 2yr−1. This rate of accumulation is only 5–15% of the total ecosystem C sink measured in this stand using eddy covariance methods.