Isotopic estimates of new carbon inputs into litter and soils in a four-year climate change experiment with Douglas-fir


Because soil is a major reservoir of terrestrial carbon and a potential sink for atmospheric CO2, determining plant inputs to soil carbon is critical for understanding ecosystem carbon dynamics. We present a modified method to quantify the effects of global climate change on plant inputs of carbon to soil based on 13C:12C ratio (δ13C) analyses that accounts for isotopic fractionation between inputs and newly created soil carbon. In a four-year study, the effects of elevated CO2 and temperature were determined for reconstructed Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga mensiezii (Mirb.) Franco) ecosystems in which native soil of low nitrogen content was used. The δ13C patterns in litter and mineral soil horizons were measured and compared to δ13C patterns in live needles, fine roots, and coarse roots. From regression analyses, we calculated the isotopic enrichment in 13C of newly incorporated soil carbon relative to needle and root carbon at 4‰ and 2‰, respectively. These enrichments must be considered when using shifts in soil δ13C to calculate inputs of plant carbon into the soil, and are probably a major factor in the progressive enrichment in 13C with increasing depth in soil profiles. Relative to the total carbon in each layer, the proportion of new carbon from recent photosynthate in each soil layer was 13–15% in the A horizon, 7–9% in litter layers, and 4% in the B2 and C horizons. New carbon in the A horizon was estimated at 370 g C m−2. Carbon concentrations and new carbon in A horizons were correlated (r2=0.78, n=12), but with a slope of 0.356, indicating that about 36% of net carbon accumulation in the A horizon was from inputs via roots, root exudates or mycorrhizal fungi and 64% of carbon was derived from surface litter decomposition. Under the nitrogen-limited growth conditions used in this study, neither elevated CO2 nor temperature affected soil carbon sequestration patterns.


Earth Systems Research Center

Publication Date


Journal Title

Plant and Soil



Document Type



© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004