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Mineral control of soil organic carbon storage and turnover


A large source of uncertainty in present understanding of the global carbon cycle is the distribution and dynamics of the soil organic carbon reservoir. Most of the organic carbon in soils is degraded to inorganic forms slowly, on timescales from centuries to millennia1. Soil minerals are known to play a stabilizing role, but how spatial and temporal variation in soil mineralogy controls the quantity and turnover of long-residence-time organic carbon is not well known2. Here we use radiocarbon analyses to explore interactions between soil mineralogy and soil organic carbon along two natural gradients—of soil-age and of climate—in volcanic soil environments. During the first 150,000 years of soil development, the volcanic parent material weathered to metastable, non-crystalline minerals. Thereafter, the amount of non-crystalline minerals declined, and more stable crystalline minerals accumulated. Soil organic carbon content followed a similar trend, accumulating to a maximum after 150,000 years, and then decreasing by 50% over the next four million years. A positive relationship between non-crystalline minerals and organic carbon was also observed in soils through the climate gradient, indicating that the accumulation and subsequent loss of organic matter were largely driven by changes in the millennial scale cycling of mineral-stabilized carbon, rather than by changes in the amount of fast-cycling organic matter or in net primary productivity. Soil mineralogy is therefore important in determining the quantity of organic carbon stored in soil, its turnover time, and atmosphere–ecosystem carbon fluxes during long-term soil development; this conclusion should be generalizable at least to other humid environments.

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Figure 1: Chronosequences: a, carbon in soil organic matter (SOM) versus depth; b, Δ14C of soil organic matter versus depth.
Figure 2: Soil inventory of carbon in soil organic matter (SOM; a), Δ14C of SOM (b), non-crystalline minerals (c), and crystalline minerals (d) versus age of soil substrate.
Figure 3: The quantity and turnover of soil C versus non-crystalline mineral content for the six chronosequence sites.

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We thank S. Zheng and T. Crews for technical assistance; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry for radiocarbon analysis; The Nature Conservancy, US National Park Service, Parker Ranch, Kahua Ranch, Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Hawaii Division of State Parks, and the Joseph Souza Center for access to field sites; and E.Davidson, J. Gaudinski and J. Harden for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by National Science Foundation, Mellon Foundation, Joan Irvine Trust, and Jet Propulsion Lab-California Institute of Technology on contract to NASA.

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Correspondence to Margaret S. Torn.

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Torn, M., Trumbore, S., Chadwick, O. et al. Mineral control of soil organic carbon storage and turnover. Nature 389, 170–173 (1997).

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