A comparative study of dissolved organic carbon transport and stabilization in California forest and grassland soils
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For soil carbon to be effectively sequestered beyond a timescale of a few decades, this carbon must become incorporated into passive reservoirs or greater depths, yet the actual mechanisms by which this occurs is at best poorly known. In this study, we quantified the magnitude of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) leaching and subsequent retention in soils of a coniferous forest and a coastal prairie ecosystem. Despite small annual losses of DOC relative to respiratory losses, DOC leaching plays a significant role in transporting C from surface horizons and stabilizing it within the mineral soil. We found that DOC movement into the mineral soil constitutes 22% of the annual C inputs below 40 cm in a coniferous forest, whereas only 2% of the C inputs below 20 cm in a prairie soil could be accounted for by this process. In line with these C input estimates, we calculated advective transport velocities of 1.05 and 0.45 mm year?¹ for the forested and prairie sites, respectively. Radiocarbon measurements of field-collected DOC interpreted with a basic transport-turnover model indicated that DOC which was transported and subsequently absorbed had a mean residence time of 90-150 years. Given these residence times, the process of DOC movement and retention is responsible for 20% of the total mineral soil C stock to 1 m in the forest soil and 9% in the prairie soil. These results provide quantitative data confirming differences in C cycles in forests and grasslands, and suggest the need for incorporating a better mechanistic understanding of soil C transport, storage and turnover processes into both local and regional C cycle models.