Minor stable carbon isotope fractionation between respired carbon dioxide and bulk soil organic matter during laboratory incubation of topsoil

Abstract

A common assumption in paleoenvironmental reconstructions using soils is that the carbon isotope composition of soil-respired CO2 is equivalent to the carbon isotope composition of bulk soil organic matter (SOM). However, the occurrence of a non-zero per mil carbon isotope enrichment factor between CO2 and SOM (\(\varepsilon_{{{\text{CO}}_{ 2} - {\text{SOM}}}}\)) during soil respiration is the most widely accepted explanation for the down-profile increase in SOM δ13C values commonly observed in well-drained soils. In order to shed light on this apparent discrepancy, we incubated soil samples collected from the top 2 cm of soils with pure C3 vegetation and compared the δ13C values of soil-respired CO2 to the δ13C values of bulk SOM. Our results show near-zero \(\varepsilon_{{{\text{CO}}_{ 2} - {\text{SOM}}}}\) values (−0.3 to 0.4 ‰), supporting the use of paleosol organic matter as a proxy for paleo soil-respired CO2. Significantly more negative \(\varepsilon_{{{\text{CO}}_{ 2} - {\text{SOM}}}}\) values are required to explain the typical δ13C profiles of SOM in well-drained soils. Therefore our results also suggest that typical SOM δ13C profiles result from either (1) a process other than carbon isotope fractionation between CO2 and SOM during soil respiration or (2) \(\varepsilon_{{{\text{CO}}_{ 2} - {\text{SOM}}}}\) values that become increasingly negative as SOM matures.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area for access and D. Fortner for logistical help. Comments from three anonymous reviewers helped substantially improve the manuscript. NSF-REU 0852029 supported this research. Data reported in this paper are available from the International Soil Carbon Network (http://www.fluxdata.org/nscn/SitePages/ISCN.aspx).

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Correspondence to D. O. Breecker.

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Breecker, D.O., Bergel, S., Nadel, M. et al. Minor stable carbon isotope fractionation between respired carbon dioxide and bulk soil organic matter during laboratory incubation of topsoil. Biogeochemistry 123, 83–98 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-014-0054-3

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Keywords

  • Soil
  • Organic matter
  • CO2
  • Carbon isotopes
  • Incubation
  • Fractionation