Geochemical drivers of organic matter decomposition in arctic tundra soils

Abstract

Climate change is warming tundra ecosystems in the Arctic, resulting in the decomposition of previously-frozen soil organic matter (SOM) and release of carbon (C) to the atmosphere; however, the processes that control SOM decomposition and C emissions remain highly uncertain. In this study, we evaluate geochemical factors that influence microbial production of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the seasonally-thawed active layer of interstitial polygonal tundra near Barrow, Alaska. We report spatial and seasonal patterns of dissolved gases in relation to the geochemical properties of Fe and organic C in soil and soil solution, as determined using spectroscopic and chromatographic techniques. The chemical composition of soil water collected during the annual thaw season varied significantly with depth. Soil water in the middle of the active layer contained abundant Fe(III), and aromatic-C and low-molecular-weight organic acids derived from SOM decomposition. At these depths, CH4 was positively correlated with the ratio of Fe(III) to total Fe in waterlogged transitional and low-centered polygons but negatively correlated in the drier flat- and high-centered polygons. These observations contradict the expectation that CH4 would be uniformly low where Fe(III) was high due to inhibition of methanogenesis by Fe(III)-reduction reactions. Our results suggest that vertically-stratified Fe redox reactions influence respiration/fermentation of SOM and production of substrates (e.g., low-molecular-weight organic acids) for methanogenesis, but that these effects vary with soil moisture. We infer that geochemical differences induced by water saturation dictate microbial products of SOM decomposition, and Fe geochemistry is an important factor regulating methanogenesis in anoxic tundra soils.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Kenneth Lowe for core sample collection, and Taniya Roy Chowdhury, Xiangping Yin, Benjamin Mann, Tonia Mehlhorn, Sharon Bone, Jay Dynes, Margaret Murphy, and Henry Gong for technical assistance and chemical analyses. All data are available in the supporting information for this manuscript and in an online data repository (NGEE-Arctic Data Portal). The Next Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE-Arctic) project and the SLAC Science Focus Area (SFA) program are supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Biological and Environmental Research. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle LLC for DOE under contract DE-AC05-00OR22725. Portions of this work were performed at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) and the Canadian Light Source (CLS). SSRL (a directorate of SLAC) is supported by the U.S. DOE, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences under Contract No. DE-AC02-76SF00515. The CLS is supported by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the University of Saskatchewan, the Government of Saskatchewan, Western Economic Diversification Canada, the National Research Council Canada, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Logistical support while working on the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO) was provided by Umiaq, LLC.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth M. Herndon or Liyuan Liang.

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Herndon, E.M., Yang, Z., Bargar, J. et al. Geochemical drivers of organic matter decomposition in arctic tundra soils. Biogeochemistry 126, 397–414 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-015-0165-5

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Keywords

  • Iron biogeochemistry
  • Tundra soil
  • Active layer
  • Soil organic matter
  • Methane