Paradigm shifts in soil organic matter research affect interpretations of aquatic carbon cycling: transcending disciplinary and ecosystem boundaries
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- Marín-Spiotta, E., Gruley, K.E., Crawford, J. et al. Biogeochemistry (2014) 117: 279. doi:10.1007/s10533-013-9949-7
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New conceptual models that highlight the importance of environmental, rather than molecular, controls on soil organic matter affect interpretations of organic matter (OM) persistence across terrestrial and aquatic boundaries. We propose that changing paradigms in our thinking about OM decomposition explain some of the uncertainties surrounding the fate of land-derived carbon (C) in marine environments. Terrestrial OM, which historically has been thought to be chemically recalcitrant to decay in soil and aquatic environments, dominates inputs to rivers yet is found in trace amounts in the ocean. We discuss three major transformations in our understanding of OM persistence that influence interpretations of the fate of aquatic OM: (1) a shift away from an emphasis on chemical recalcitrance as a primary predictor of turnover; (2) new interpretations of radiocarbon ages, which affect predictions of reactivity; and (3) the recognition that most OM leaving soils in dissolved form has been microbially processed. The first two explain rapid turnover for terrigenous OM in aquatic ecosystems once it leaves the soil matrix. The third suggests that the presence of terrestrial OM in aquatic ecosystems may be underestimated by the use of plant biomarkers. Whether these mechanisms occur in isolation of each other or in combination, they provide insight into the missing terrestrial C signature in the ocean. Spatially and temporally varying transformations of OM along land–water networks require that common terrestrial source indicators be interpreted within specific environmental contexts. We identify areas of research where collaborations between aquatic and terrestrial scientists will enhance quantification of C transfer from soils to inland water bodies, the ocean, and the atmosphere. Accurate estimates of OM processing are essential for improving predictions of the response of vulnerable C pools at the interface of soil and water to changes in climate and land use.