, Volume 91, Issue 9, pp 436–440 | Cite as

Overestimates of black carbon in soils and sediments

  • Myrna J. Simpson
  • Patrick G. Hatcher
Short Communication


Several recent reports suggest that black carbon (BC), which broadly encompasses charcoal, soot, and other forms of pyrogenic carbon, may constitute a significant proportion of the refractory carbon in soil and sedimentary organic matter. BC is a sink for biospheric and atmospheric carbon dioxide, and is intimately tied to the biogeochemical cycling of both carbon and oxygen through its role in organic matter cycling. Additionally, BC may represent a large fraction of the “missing carbon sink” in global carbon accounting. Here, we demonstrate that documented measurements of BC may be the result of methodological artifacts, which inadvertently overestimate the amount of BC. We found that a widely used thermal oxidative method can create a residue that falls under the operational definition of BC in samples that are relatively BC-free. Moreover, during this procedure, labile organic matter constituents are condensed into pyrogenic carbon, implying that the labile components are present in lesser quantities. These methodological deficiencies are promoting overestimates in the amount of refractory carbon in soil and sedimentary organic matter and may endorse inaccuracies in the rates of carbon fluxes, the mean residence times of terrestrial carbon, and organic matter burial rates in oceanic environments.


Lignin Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Black Carbon Thermal Oxidation Natural Organic Matter 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank Dr. J. Skjemstad for providing the Australian and German soil samples and the BC values determined by UV photo-oxidation and solid-state NMR. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, Environmental Molecular Science Institute (CHE-0089147) and a postdoctoral fellowship to M.J.S. from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada.


  1. Derenne S, Largeau CA (2001) A review of some important families of refractory macromolecules: composition, origin, and fate in soils and sediments. Soil Sci 166:833–847CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Gelinas Y, Prentice KM, Baldock JA, Hedges JI (2001) An improved thermal oxidation method for the quantification of soot/graphitic black carbon in sediments and soils. Environ Sci Technol 35:3519–3525CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Glaser B, Balashov E, Haumaier L, Guggenberger G, Zech W (2000) Black carbon in soils: the use of benzenecarboxylic acids as specific markers. Org Geochem 31:669–678CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Goldberg ED (1985) Black carbon in the environment. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. Gustafsson O, Haghseta F, Chan C, MacFarlane J, Gschwend PM (1997) Quantification of the dilute sedimentary soot phase: implications for PAH speciation and bioavailability. Environ Sci Technol 31:203–209CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Gustafsson O, Bucheli TD, Kukulska Z, Andersson M, Largeau C, Rouzaud J-N, Reddy CM, Eglinton TI (2001) Evaluation of a protocol for the quantification of black carbon in sediments. Global Biogeochem Cycles 15:881–890CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hatcher PG (2002) Wood associated with the 79 AD eruption: its chemical characterization by solid state 13C NMR as a guide to the degree of carbonization. In Jashemski WF, Meyers F (eds) The natural history of Ancient Pompeii and other Vesuvian sites. Karatzas, New Rochelle, N.Y., pp 217–224Google Scholar
  8. Hedges JI, Keil RG (1995) Sedimentary organic matter preservation: an assessment and speculative synthesis. Mar Chem 49:81–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hedges JI, Eglinton G, Hatcher PG, Kirchman DL, Arnosti C, Derenne S, Evershed RP, Kogel-Knabner I, De Leeuw JW, Littke R, Michaelis W, Rullkotter J (2000) The molecularly-uncharacterized component of nonliving organic matter in natural environments. Org Geochem 31:945–958CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Kuhlbusch TAJ (1995) Method for determining black carbon in residues of vegetation fires. Environ Sci Technol 29:2695–2702Google Scholar
  11. Kuhlbusch TAJ, Crutzen PJ (1995) Toward a global estimate of black carbon in residues of vegetation fires representing a sink of atmospheric CO2 and a source of O2. Global Biogeochem Cycles 9:491–501CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Lim B, Cachier H (1996) Determination of black carbon by chemical oxidation and thermal treatment in recent marine and lake sediments and Cretaceous-Tertiary clays. Chem Geol 131:143–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Mannino A, Harvey HR (2004) Black carbon in estuarine and coastal ocean dissolved organic matter. Limnol Oceanogr 40:735–740Google Scholar
  14. Masiello CA; Druffel ERM (1998) BC in deep-sea sediments. Science 280:1911–1913CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Middelburg JJ, Nieuwenhuize J, van Breugel P (1999) Black carbon in marine sediments. Mar Chem 65:245–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Schmidt MWI, Noack AG (2000) black carbon in soils and sediments: analysis, distribution, implications, and current challenges. Global Biogeochem Cycles 14:777–793CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Schmidt MWI, Skjemstad JO; Gehrt E; Kogel-Knabner I (1999) Charred organic carbon in German chernozemic soils. Eur J Soil Sci 50:351–365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Schmidt MWI, Skjemstad JO, Czimczik CI, Glaser B, Prentice KM, Gelinas Y, Kuhlbusch TAJ (2001) Comparative analysis of black carbon in soils. Global Biogeochem Cycles 15:163–167CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Simpson MJ, Hatcher PG (2004) Determination of black carbon in natural organic matter by chemical oxidation and solid-state 13C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Org Geochem 35:923–935CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Skjemstad JO, Taylor JA (1999) Does the Walkley-Black method determine soil charcoal? Commun Soil Sci Plant Anal 30:2299–2310Google Scholar
  21. Skjemstad JO; Clarke P; Taylor JA; Oades JM, McClure SG (1996) The chemistry and nature of protected carbon in soil. Aust J Soil Res 34:251–271Google Scholar
  22. Skjemstad JO, Taylor JA, Smernik RJ (1999) Estimation of charcoal (char) in soils. Commun Soil Sci Plant Anal 30:2283–2298Google Scholar
  23. Suman DO, Kuhlbusch TAJ, Lim B (1997) Marine sediments: a reservoir for black carbon and their use as spatial and temporal records of combustion. In Clark JS, Cachier H, Goldammer JG, Stocks B (eds) NATO ASI Series I: Global environmental change. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg New York, pp 271–293Google Scholar
  24. Swift R (1996) Organic matter characterization. In Sparks DL (eds) Methods of soil analysis. Part 3: Chemical methods. Soil Science Society of America, Madison, Wis., pp 1011–1069Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemistry and Environmental Molecular Science InstituteOhio State UniversityColumbusUSA
  2. 2.Department of Physical and Environmental Science, Scarborough CollegeUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations