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Long-term stabilization of deep soil carbon by fire and burial during early Holocene climate change

Nature Geoscience volume 7, pages 428432 (2014) | Download Citation


Buried soils contain large reservoirs of organic carbon at depths that are not typically included in regional and global soil carbon inventories1. One such palaeosol, the Brady soil of southwestern Nebraska, USA, is buried under six metres of loess. The Brady soil developed at the land surface on the late-Pleistocene-aged Peoria Loess in a period of warmth and wetness during which dunefields and dust sources across the region were stabilized2,3. Abrupt climate change in the early Holocene led to increased loess deposition that buried the soil4. Here, we used spectroscopic and isotopic analyses to determine the composition and stability of organic carbon in the Brady soil. We identify high levels of black carbon, indicating extensive biomass burning. In addition, we found intact vascular plant lipids in soil organic matter with radiocarbon ages ranging from 10,500 to 12,400 cal yr BP, indicating decomposition was slowed by rapid burial at the start of the Holocene. We conclude that landscape disturbance caused by abrupt climate change, fire and the loss of vegetative cover contributed to deep carbon sequestration as the soil was quickly buried under accumulating loess. We suggest that terrestrial soil carbon storage in arid and semi-arid environments could undergo landscape-scale shifts in response to rising temperatures, increased fire activity or drought.

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We thank Z. R. Stewart, S. Giri, K. Wickings and C. Peltre for assistance with lab analyses, J. Sanderman for the revised molecular mixing-model, the Sturtevant family for site access, and the following funding sources: Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, NSF BCS-0079252, BCS-0352683, BCS-0352748. Radiocarbon analysis was graciously supported by the Radiocarbon Collaborative, which is jointly sponsored by the USDA Forest Service, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Michigan Technological University. We also thank W. C. Johnson for thoughtful comments on the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA

    • Erika Marin-Spiotta
    •  & Joseph A. Mason
  2. Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706 , USA

    • Erika Marin-Spiotta
    •  & Nina T. Chaopricha
  3. Department of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA

    • Alain F. Plante
  4. Department of Geology, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio 45221, USA

    • Aaron F. Diefendorf
  5. Lehrstuhl für Bodenkunde, Department of Ecology and Ecosystem Management, Center of Life and Food Sciences Weihenstephan, Technische Universität München, D-85350, Freisling-Weihenstephan, Germany

    • Carsten W. Mueller
  6. Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, USA

    • A. Stuart Grandy


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E.M-S., N.T.C. and J.A.M. conceived and designed the study; N.T.C. performed soil fractionation; A.F.P. performed thermal analyses; A.F.D. performed lipid analyses; C.W.M. performed NMR analyses; A.S.G. performed pyrolysis GC/MS analyses; E.M-S. wrote the manuscript; and all authors took part in the interpretation of the results.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Erika Marin-Spiotta.

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