Greenhouse gas fluxes from Atacama Desert soils: a test of biogeochemical potential at the Earth’s arid extreme
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Most terrestrial ecosystems support a similar suite of biogeochemical processes largely dependent on the availability of water and labile carbon (C). Here, we explored the biogeochemical potential of soils from Earth’s driest ecosystem, the Atacama Desert, characterized by extremely low moisture and organic C. We sampled surface soil horizons from sites ranging from the Atacama’s hyper-arid core to less-arid locations at higher elevation that supported sparse vegetation. We performed laboratory incubations and measured fluxes of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), and methane (CH4) as indices of potential biogeochemical activity across this gradient. We were able to stimulate trace gas production at all sites, and treatment responses often suggested the influence of microbial processes. Sites with extant vegetation had higher C concentrations (0.13–0.68%) and produced more CO2 under oxic than sub-oxic conditions, suggesting the presence of aerobic microbial decomposers. In contrast, abiotic CO2 production appeared to predominate in the most arid and C-poor (<0.08% C) sites without plants, with one notable exception. Soils were either a weak source or sink of CH4 under oxic conditions, whereas anoxia stimulated CH4 production across all sites. Several sites were rich in nitrate, and we stimulated N2O fluxes in all soils by headspace manipulation or dissolved organic matter addition. Peak N2O fluxes in the most C-poor soil (0.02% C) were very high, exceeding 3 ng nitrogen g−1 h−1 under anoxic conditions. These results provide evidence of resilience of at least some soil biogeochemical capacity to long-term water and C deprivation in the world’s driest ecosystem. Atacama soils appear capable of responding biogeochemically to moisture inputs, and could conceivably constitute a regionally-important source of N2O under altered rainfall regimes, analogous to other temperate deserts.
KeywordsArid Atacama Desert Chile Global change Methane Nitrous oxide Resilience Wet-up
Funding was provided by NSF grant EAR-0819972 to RA and WLS, and from a UC-Berkeley Graduate School Fellowship to SJH. Anonymous reviewers provided excellent and provocative comments that improved the manuscript. We thank S. Balan for collecting soils, and D. Liptzin, W. Yang, and B. Ryals for valuable advice and discussion.
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