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Soil aggregate stability to predict organic carbon outputs from soils

Chaplot, V., Cooper, M.
Geoderma 2015 v.243-244 pp. 205-213
accelerated erosion, aggregate stability, carbon, carbon cycle, carbon dioxide, clay soils, climate change, grasses, greenhouse gas emissions, infiltration (hydrology), land management, losses from soil, models, organic matter, runoff, sandy soils, sediments, soil aggregates, soil aggregation, soil organic carbon, soil sampling, soil stabilization, soil structure
Soil structure (e.g. aggregation) has been recognized as a key element in the stabilization of soil organic matter. While aggregate bre akdown is assumed to expose the enclosed soil organic carbon (SOC) to preferential erosion and to accelerated decomposition, the link between the stability of soil aggregates and SOC exports from soils, has either been overlooked or unaccounted for, especially when developing carbon cycle models. This study compared SOC losses in particulate (POC), dissolved (DOC) and gaseous (GOC) forms to an indicator of the soil aggregate stability, the mean weight diameter of aggregates (MWD). SOC outputs were considered at 24 locations of a typical hillslope of the South African Highveld showing clayey to sandy soils. Both POC and DOC were evaluated in-situ under natural rains using 1×1m2 runoff plots while soil CO2 emissions were assessed in the laboratory from undisturbed 0–0.05m soil samples. MWD was finally compared to selected soil and terrain attributes for predictive purpose and as a means to further the understanding of SOC outputs from soils. MWD ranged between 1.4mm for unstable aggregates and 3.4mm for stable aggregates. The increase in aggregate stability resulted in a significant increase in POC and DOC concentrations in the eroded sediments (r=0.76) and in GOC losses from soils (r=0.91 when expressed as g C-CO2 per gram of soil; r=0.95 when as g C-CO2 per gram of soil carbon). In contrast, high aggregate stability induced low total DOC and POC losses (r=−0.81 and −0.77, respectively). The lower POC and DOC losses in the most stable soil aggregates were explained by increased soil infiltration by water and reduced transport by runoff, while the greater CO2 emissions correlated with high SOC concentration. Furthermore, there was a tendency for clayey soils which were fully covered by grass to present stable aggregates and thus to yield greater CO2 emissions but lower POC and DOC outputs than degraded sandy soils of low aggregate stability. Such a quantitative assessment of the role of soil aggregation on SOC outputs might enhance knowledge on organic matter persistence in soils, a prerequisite for developing more accurate global carbon cycle models. Finally further research is required to investigate the downslope to downstream fate of the eroded SOC and to develop land management strategies that aim at lessening carbon losses from soils while enhancing adaptation to climate change.