Lavallee, J. M., R. T. Conant, M. L. Haddix, R. F. Follett, M. I. Bird, and E. A. Paul. 2019. Selective preservation of pyrogenic carbon across soil organic matter fractions and its influence on calculations of carbon mean residence times. Geoderma doi: 10.1016/j.geoderma.2019.07.024
The long-standing perspective that recalcitrance of soil organic carbon (SOC) controls its stability and persistence has shifted to one in which physical inaccessibility of SOC to microorganisms plays a predominant role. This paradigm shift has been facilitated by analytical techniques that isolate SOC into physical fractions protected from decomposers by different mechanisms. The correlation between these fractions and SOC age has reinforced the emphasis of SOC inaccessibility. Pyrogenic C (PyC; also called charcoal or black carbon), which has been thermally altered by fire, is known to contain highly recalcitrant components that decompose very slowly and could represent an exception to this paradigm shift. We employed hydrogen pyrolysis to quantify the contribution of PyC to total SOC across soil fractions from three long-term agricultural experiments with land use conversions that caused reductions in SOC. We show that all soil fractions contain PyC and up to one-fifth of SOC in soil fractions considered to have low accessibility is comprised of PyC. Regardless of the soil fraction in which it was located, PyC was relatively unaffected by land use conversion compared to biogenic C (organic C not altered by fire), which suggests that selective preservation, rather than physical protection, is the dominant mechanism limiting PyC decomposition in these sites. We accounted for PyC in calculations of C mean residence times (MRTs) using differences in stable C isotope ratios between PyC and SOC. Though results varied by site and soil fraction, MRTs for biogenic C were generally shorter than for total SOC. Based on these results, PyC decomposition is controlled by a different mechanism than biogenic C, and this should be considered in studies of soil C dynamics. In addition, methods based on physical fractionation alone may place too great an emphasis on the role of inaccessibility for long-term SOC persistence.
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