Bioavailable Carbon and the Relative Degradation State of Organic Matter in Active Layer and Permafrost Soils

Wednesday, December 16, 2015 - 11:00
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The decomposability of soil organic carbon (SOC) in permafrost regions is a key uncertainty in efforts to predict carbon release from thawing permafrost and its impacts. The cold and often wet environment is the dominant factor limiting decomposer activity, and soil organic matter is often preserved in a relatively undecomposed and uncomplexed state. Thus, the impacts of soil warming and permafrost thaw are likely to depend at least initially on the genesis and past history of organic matter degradation before its stabilization in permafrost. We compared the bioavailability and relative degradation state of SOC in active layer and permafrost soils from Arctic tundra in Alaska. To assess readily bioavailable SOC, we quantified salt (0.5 M K2SO4) extractable organic matter (SEOM), which correlates well with carbon mineralization rates in short-term soil incubations. To assess the relative degradation state of SOC, we used particle size fractionation to isolate fibric (coarse) from more degraded (fine) particulate organic matter (POM) and separated mineral-associated organic matter into silt- and clay-sized fractions. On average, bulk SOC concentrations in permafrost were lower than in comparable active layer horizons. Although SEOM represented a very small proportion of the bulk SOC, this proportion was greater in permafrost than in comparable active layer soils. A large proportion of bulk SOC was found in POM for all horizons. Even for mineral soils, about 40% of bulk SOC was in POM pools, indicating that organic matter in both active layer and permafrost mineral soils was relatively undecomposed compared to typical temperate soils. Not surprisingly, organic soils had a greater proportion of POM and mineral soils had greater silt- and clay-sized carbon pools, while cryoturbated soils were intermediate. For organic horizons, permafrost organic matter was generally more degraded than in comparable active layer horizons. However, in mineral and cryoturbated horizons, the presence of permafrost appeared to have little effect on SOC distribution among size fractions. Future studies will investigate the utility of using organic matter pools defined by SEOM and particle size to predict the bioavailable pools characterized through more time-consuming long-term incubation studies of permafrost region soils.