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Ashes to ashes: Characterization of organic matter in Andosols along a 3400 m elevation transect at Mount Kilimanjaro using analytical pyrolysis

Becker, Joscha N., Dippold, Michaela A., Hemp, Andreas, Kuzyakov, Yakov
Catena 2019 v.180 pp. 271-281
Andosols, Podocarpus, alkanes, alkenes, altitude, aromatic compounds, biodiversity, carbon, climate, climate change, desorption, ecosystems, fatty acid esters, fatty acids, forest soils, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, heathlands, land use change, lignin, montane forests, polycyclic compounds, pyrolysis, soil organic matter, soil pH, sterols, temperature, topsoil, trees, volatile compounds, volcanic rocks, wildfires
Tropical mountain ecosystems cover a broad variety of climatic and vegetation zones and are global hotspots of biodiversity. These ecosystems are severely threatened by climate and land-use change, which also strongly affect soil properties. Mt. Kilimanjaro, with its large elevation gradient and relatively homogeneous geology of volcanic rocks and ashes, provides a unique opportunity to study and interpret soil organic matter (SOM) responses to climatic changes.Our objectives were to identify key SOM compounds in six elevation zones (covering ecosystems from tropical dry-lowland, through montane forest, up to alpine heathlands) that are affected by the climatic changes along a 3400 m transect, and to relate these SOM changes to ecosystem specific characteristics. The SOM composition in four topsoils (0–10 cm) samples per ecosystem was characterized by analytical double-shot pyrolysis-gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (Py-GC/MS). Evolving-gas analysis-mass spectrometry (EGA-MS) was used to quantitatively compare the thermal desorption (first shot: <280 °C) and pyrolysis step (second shot: 280–600 °C).The percentage of thermally desorbed compounds increased 10 fold from lowland (<900 m) to mountain forest soils (>2000 m), followed by a 40% decrease in alpine ecosystems (>4000 m). Alkanes/-enes/-ols contributed between 4% and 30% to the identified SOM composition, with a maximum at mid elevation (2120 m). Fatty acids and fatty acid esters contributed with <3% to SOM composition and decreased to a minimum of <1% at Podocarpus forest soils (2900 m), followed by a re-increase at higher elevation. The percentage of lignin-derived compounds followed a similar pattern but also responded to reduced woody inputs above the tree line.Two main factors that seem to affect SOM quality and composition at Mt. Kilimanjaro were: 1) the rate and composition of organic matter inputs that in turn are controlled by climatic characteristics and the vegetation type and 2) the decomposition rate and efficiency, mainly controlled by soil pH, temperature and water availability. High forest productivity at mid elevations (2200 m) leads to high amounts of volatile compounds and increases stable SOM pools. The overall carbon accumulation in Andosols of Mt. Kilimanjaro is linked to the percentage of bound lipids (mainly alkanes, alkenes and alcohols), while site specific input patterns (e.g. vegetation or wild fires) are strongly reflected by sterols, lignin derived compounds or polycyclic aromatic compounds in SOM.