Variability in 14C contents of soil organic matter at the plot and regional scale across climatic and geologic gradients

Van der Voort Tessa S. 1, Hagedorn Frank 2, McIntyre Cameron 1,3, Zell Claudia 1, Walthert Lorenz 2, Schleppi Patrick 2, Feng Xiaojuan 1,4, Eglinton Timothy I. 1

1 Institute of Geology, ETH Zürich, Sonneggstrasse 5, 8092 Zürich, Switzerland
2 Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Forest Soils and Biogeochemistry, Zürcherstrasse 111, 8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland
3 Department of Physics, Laboratory of Ion Beam Physics, ETH Zurich, Otto-Stern-Weg 5, 8093 Zurich
4 State Key Laboratory of Vegetation and Environmental Change, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100093, China

Biogeosci. 13 (2016): 3427-3439

DOI: 10.5194/bg-13-3427-2016


Soil organic matter (SOM) forms the largest terrestrial pool of carbon outside of sedimentary rocks. Radiocarbon is a powerful tool for assessing soil organic matter dynamics. However, due to the nature of the measurement, extensive 14C studies of soils systems remain relatively rare. In particular, information on the extent of spatial and temporal variability in 14C contents of soils is limited, yet this information is crucial for establishing the range of baseline properties and for detecting potential modifications to the SOM pool. This study describes a comprehensive approach to explore heterogeneity in bulk SOM 14C in Swiss forest soils that encompass diverse landscapes and climates. We examine spatial variability in soil organic carbon (SOC) 14C, SOC content and C:N ratios over both regional climatic and geologic gradients, on the watershed- and plot-scale and within soil profiles. Results reveal (1) a relatively uniform radiocarbon signal across climatic and geologic gradients in Swiss forest topsoils (0-5 cm, Δ14C=159±36.4, n=12 sites), (2) similar radiocarbon trends with soil depth despite dissimilar environmental conditions, and (3) micro-topography dependent, plot-scale variability that is similar in magnitude to regional-scale variability (e.g., Gleysol, 0-5 cm, Δ14C 126±35.2, n=8 adjacent plots of 10x10m). Statistical analyses have additionally shown that Δ14C signature in the topsoil is not significantly correlated to climatic parameters (precipitation, elevation, primary production) except mean annual temperature at 0-5 cm. These observations have important consequences for SOM carbon stability modelling assumptions, as well as for the understanding of controls on past and current soil carbon dynamics.