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Age and Thermal Stability of Particulate Organic Matter Fractions Indicate the Presence of Black Carbon in Soil

Jens Leifeld, Maria Heiling, Irka Hajdas


Black carbon (BC) from incomplete combustion of organic materials is abundant in many soils. Its age is often higher than that of thermally unaltered soil organic carbon (SOC) owing to the presence of BC from fossil sources or to a high recalcitrance against microbial decomposition compared to that of plant residues. For a meaningful application of radiocarbon as an indicator for soil carbon age and turnover, the relative contribution of BC needs to be quantified, but BC is difficult to separate physically from soil. However, BC is thermally more stable than SOC, and hence thermal stability may provide a quantitative BC indicator. Here, we analyzed 30 light particulate organic carbon (POC) soil fractions for their thermal stability and for their 14C signature. POC is particularly sensitive to “contamination” with BC, because it is obtained by combined size and density fractionation. A steady-state “bomb” 14C model was used to derive mean POC ages. Soils from four sample sets, each consisting of six to eight individual POC samples and representing different field sites and POC types, were analyzed. Samples from one of the sets were virtually BC free, and their mean POC ages ranged from 60 to 100 yr. The 14C signature of samples from the other three sets indicated the presence of very old carbon, with mean POC ages of several hundred and up to 3500 yr. Two indicators for thermal stability—(1) the amount of heat released at temperatures >450°C and (2) the amount of heat released at 500°C (the latter representing the peak temperature of heat released from charcoal isolated from soil)—correlated both significantly and nonlinearly with POC age, indicating that samples with high BC content were older than those with low BC content. It can be concluded that at an individual site with increasing abundance of BC, both the age and the thermal stability of POC increase. However, thermal stability proved to be a reliable predictor for BC in only one sample set, whereas thermal signals of the other two BC-containing sample sets were not significantly different from those of BC-free samples. Thermal stability thus gives no unequivocal indication for the presence of BC in POC across different sites.

DOI: 10.2458/azu_rc.57.17964


soil, bomb14C, particulate organic carbon, thermal analysis

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