Precipitation pulse dynamics of carbon sequestration and efflux in highly weatherable soils
Soils are the primary pool for terrestrial carbon on Earth, and loss of that carbon to the atmosphere or hydrosphere represents a significant efflux that can impact a host of other downstream processes. Soil respiration (R soil), the efflux of CO2 to the atmosphere, represents the major pathway by which carbon is lost from the soil system in more weathered soils. However, in newly formed soils, chemical weathering can significantly deplete soil CO2 concentrations. As vegetation colonizes these soils, multiple interacting and contradictory pathways evolve such that soil CO2concentrations increase in response to plant inputs but are decreased through chemical reactions. Furthermore, abiotic drivers of soil temperature and moisture likely differentially affect these processes. Understanding the bio-geo-chemical drivers and feedbacks associated with soil CO2 production and efflux in the critical zone necessitates an integrated science approach, drawing on input from plant physiologists, bio- and geochemists, and hydrologists. Here, we created a series of 1-meter deep mesocosms filled with granular basalt that supported either a woody mesquite shrub, a bunchgrass, or was left as bare soil. Use of multiple plant functional types allowed us to explore the impacts of plant structure (primarily rooting profiles) on critical zone function in terms of water and carbon exchange surrounding precipitation pulse dynamics. Each mesocosm was outfitted with an array of soil moisture, temperature, water potential, and CO2 concentration sensors at the near-surface, 30, 55, and 80cm depths to quantify patterns of soil moisture and respiratory CO2 efflux in response to rainfall events of varying magnitude and intervening periods of drought. Five replicates of each were maintained under current ambient or projected (+4oC) air temperatures. In addition, we used minirhizotrons to quantify the response of roots to episodic rainfall and confirm differences among plant types and collected soils solution samples to quantify dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), pH, and other solute concentrations.
Importantly, we found R soil dynamics to be nearly in direct contrast to our classic understanding of patterns of soil CO2 efflux after rain events. R soil rates declined immediately upon wetting and gradually increased to pre-rain rates as the soils dried. Investigation into soil CO2 profile data showed that CO2 concentrations just below the surface declined significantly from near-ambient levels to near ~50ppm, which would directly impact rates of R soil. We detected differences among plant functional types in terms of rooting depth, water use, photosynthetic uptake, base rates of R soil, the time required to return to pre-rain rates of R soil, and the rates of soil weathering. Combining aboveground measurements of carbon uptake with these belowground estimates of carbon pools and efflux will allow us to make much more informed projections of carbon dynamics within highly weatherable soils across a range of global climate change projections and plant functional types.
Experiment webpage: Mesquite & Grass Mesocosm Experiment