Quantifying soil carbon dynamics is of utmost relevance in the context of global change because soils play an important role in land–atmosphere gas exchange. Our current understanding of both present and future carbon dynamics is limited because we fail to accurately represent soil processes across temporal and spatial scales, partly because of the paucity of data on the relative importance and hierarchical relationships between microbial, geochemical and climatic controls. Here, using observations from a 3,000-kyr-old soil chronosequence preserved in alluvial terrace deposits of the Merced River, California, we show how soil carbon dynamics are driven by the relationship between short-term biotic responses and long-term mineral weathering. We link temperature sensitivity of heterotrophic respiration to biogeochemical soil properties through their relationship with microbial activity and community composition. We found that soil mineralogy, and in particular changes in mineral reactivity and resulting nutrient availability, impacts the response of heterotrophic soil respiration to warming by altering carbon inputs, carbon stabilization, microbial community composition and extracellular enzyme activity. We demonstrate that biogeochemical alteration of the soil matrix (and not short-term warming) controls the composition of microbial communities and strategies to metabolize nutrients. More specifically, weathering first increases and then reduces nutrient availability and retention, as well as the potential of soils to stabilize carbon.

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This research was financed in the framework of the BELSPO funded research action P7 as part of project P7/24 ‘SOGLO’. Further financial support has been given by: UC Merced, UC Louvain, ETH Zurich and Augsburg University. Special thanks to H. Maclean (Maclean Scientific Editing) for language proof reading, to M. Schulz (US Geological Survey) for providing a USGS internal review of this manuscript, as well as the Soil and Water Conservation Society and the US Department of Agriculture for imagery of microbial communities used in Supplementary Fig. 2.

Author information


  1. Institute of Geography, Augsburg University, Augsburg, Germany

    • S. Doetterl
    •  & P. Fiener
  2. Isotope Bioscience Laboratory (ISOFYS), Ghent University, Gent, Belgium

    • S. Doetterl
    • , S. Bodé
    • , M. Griepentrog
    •  & P. Boeckx
  3. School of Natural Sciences Sciences, University of California at Merced, Merced, CA, USA

    • A. A. Berhe
    •  & C. Arnold
  4. Department of Environment, Ghent University, Gent, Belgium

    • P. Finke
  5. Plants and Ecosystems Research Center, Antwerp University, Antwerpen, Belgium

    • L. Fuchslueger
  6. Department of Microbiology and Ecosystem Science, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria

    • L. Fuchslueger
    •  & J. Schnecker
  7. Department of Earth Sciences, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • M. Griepentrog
  8. Soil Biogeochemistry Research Group, Emeritus US Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA, USA

    • J. W. Harden
  9. School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA

    • J. W. Harden
  10. Earth and Life Institute, Catholic University of Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

    • E. Nadeu
    •  & K. Van Oost
  11. Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, Zürich, Switzerland

    • J. Six
  12. Institute for Biogeochemistry, Max Planck Society, Munich, Germany

    • S. Trumbore
  13. Institute of Soil Science and Site Ecology, TU Dresden, Dresden, Germany

    • C. Vogel
  14. Research Department Ecology and Ecosystem Management, TU München, Munich, Germany

    • C. Vogel


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S.D. and A.A.B. designed the research and co-authors are listed in alphabetical order. S.D., A.A.B., J.Six, K.V.O. and J.W.H. conducted sampling campaigns. S.D., C.A., L.F., J.Schnecker, J.Six, C.V., E.N. and M.G. collected, analysed and interpreted the data. All authors contributed to the writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to S. Doetterl.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Discussion, Data and Figures

  2. Supplementary Dataset

    Raw data for XRD spectra on total and clay mineralogy, including an explanatory help text file.

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