Microbially available carbon in buried riparian soils in a glaciated landscape

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Buried horizons and lenses in riparian soil profiles harbor large amounts of carbon relative to the surrounding soil horizons. Because these buried soil horizons, as well as deep surface horizons, frequently lie beneath the water table, their impact on nitrogen transport across the terrestrial-aquatic interface depends upon their frequency and spatial distribution, and upon the lability of associated organic matter. We collected samples of 51 soil horizons from 14 riparian zones Rhode Island, USA, where soil profiles are characterized by glacial outwash and alluvial deposits. These soil samples came from as deep as 2 m and ranged in carbon content from <1% to 44% in a buried O horizon 54-74 cm deep. We used these samples to: (1) determine the extent to which carbon in buried horizons, and deep surface horizons, is potentially microbially available; (2) identify spatial patterns of carbon mineralization associated with surface and buried horizons; and (3) evaluate likely relationships between soil horizon types, chemical characteristics and carbon mineralization. Carbon mineralization rates associated with buried horizons during anaerobic incubations ranged from 0.0001 to 0.0175 μmol C kg soil-1 s-1 and correlated positively with microbial biomass (R=0.89, P<0.0001, n=21). Excluding surface O horizons from the analysis, carbon mineralization varied systematically with horizon type (surface A, buried A, buried O, lenses, A/C, B, C) (P<0.05) but not with depth or depth x horizon interaction (overall R2=0.59, P<0.0005, n=47). In contrast to this result and to most published data sets, 13C-to-12C and 15N-to-14N ratios of organic matter declined with depth (13C-26.9 to -29.3 per mil, 15N+5.6 to -0.8 per mil). The absence of a relationship between horizon depth and C availability suggests that carbon availability in these buried horizons may be determined by the abundance and quality of organic matter at the time of horizon formation or burial, rather than by duration since burial, and implies that subsurface microbial activity is largely disconnected from surface ecosystems. Our results contribute to the emerging view that buried horizons harbor microbially available C in quantities relevant to ecosystem processes, and suggest that buried C-rich soil horizons need to be incorporated into assessments of the depth of the biologically active zone in near-stream subsurface soils. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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Soil Biology and Biochemistry