, Volume 117, Issue 2–3, pp 279–297 | Cite as

Paradigm shifts in soil organic matter research affect interpretations of aquatic carbon cycling: transcending disciplinary and ecosystem boundaries

  • E. Marín-Spiotta
  • K. E. Gruley
  • J. Crawford
  • E. E. Atkinson
  • J. R. Miesel
  • S. Greene
  • C. Cardona-Correa
  • R. G. M. Spencer
Synthesis and Emerging Ideas


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.


Soil organic matter Dissolved organic matter Radiocarbon Black carbon Aquatic Terrestrial Marine Lignin 



We thank L. Graham, M. Kleber, J. Sanderman and two anonymous reviewers for thorough and thoughtful comments that greatly improved earlier versions of the text and conceptual figures; K. Keefover-Ring for assistance with figures; G. Sanford for sharing data; the ISOGEOCHEM community for sharing references; and all Spring 2011 Geography 920 seminar participants and guests for lively discussions that led to the writing of this paper. We acknowledge support from NSF through DEB-0932440, DEB-1050742, and DBI-0610453 to E.M.S. and ETBC-0851101, OCE-1333157, ANT-1203885 and OPP-1107774 to R.G.M.S. This work was in part supported by the NSF-IGERT award DGE-1144752.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. Marín-Spiotta
    • 1
  • K. E. Gruley
    • 1
  • J. Crawford
    • 2
    • 3
  • E. E. Atkinson
    • 1
  • J. R. Miesel
    • 4
  • S. Greene
    • 1
  • C. Cardona-Correa
    • 5
  • R. G. M. Spencer
    • 6
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Center for LimnologyUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  3. 3.National Research ProgramU.S. Geological SurveyBoulderUSA
  4. 4.Department of ForestryMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  5. 5.Department of BotanyUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  6. 6.Woods Hole Research CenterFalmouthUSA

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