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Assessing the role of alkaline soils on the carbon cycle at a playa site

Abstract

Alkaline soils occupy approximately 5 % of the Earth’s land surface (7 million km), and this may increase due to the global trend towards increasing desertification, yet the extent to which these soils modulate carbon dynamics on regional and global scales is inadequately studied and poorly understood. Railroad Valley (RRV) playa (Nevada, USA) is a semi-arid playa with highly alkaline soils (pH > 10) and no vegetation. The extreme, alkaline environment and absence of vascular vegetation make RRV an ideal site to investigate the role of physiochemical processes of soil-atmosphere CO2 exchange. Both field and laboratory investigations were conducted. This work shows how the atmospheric CO2 mixing ratio decreases at nighttime at RRV playa to a value well below the average global background CO2 concentration. Laboratory investigations using soil samples collected at RRV playa confirmed that CO2 uptake by RRV playa soils occurs when temperatures are decreased. Both field and laboratory studies suggest that the alkaline RRV soil acts as a CO2 reservoir during colder periods, such as at nighttime. These results highlight the importance of investigating carbon dynamics in previously understudied environments. Given how little information is available on the CO2 flux in desert and semi-arid alkaline ecosystems lacking vegetation, our findings draw attention to these environments as becoming increasingly important for carbon fluxes on regional and global scales.

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Acknowledgments

We specifically acknowledge the cooperation and efforts of the personnel involved in the Railroad Valley vicarious calibration experiment from the Atmospheric CO2 Observations from Space (ACOS) Team, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES), Colorado State University (CSU) and particular thanks to G. Jacobson from Picarro Inc. We also thank the University of Arizona Remote Sensing Group for making the research facilities at Railroad Valley available, Prof. Craig Clements (San Jose State University) for additional instrumentation and Adrienne Frisbee for guidance. We acknowledge financial support from NASA’s Earth Science Division and Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) through the NASA Postdoctoral Program (E.L.Y., J.M.T.). The participation of B. M. Bebout, C. A. Kelley and A. M. Detweiler was made possible by financial support from NASA’s Exobiology Program.

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Correspondence to Emma L. Yates.

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Yates, E.L., Detweiler, A.M., Iraci, L.T. et al. Assessing the role of alkaline soils on the carbon cycle at a playa site. Environ Earth Sci 70, 1047–1056 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12665-012-2194-x

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Keywords

  • Semi-arid ecosystem
  • Playa
  • Alkaline soils
  • Carbon dioxide flux
  • Carbon cycle
  • Carbon dioxide adsorption