Articles | Volume 1, issue 2
SOIL, 1, 537–542, 2015
SOIL, 1, 537–542, 2015

Short communication 28 Jul 2015

Short communication | 28 Jul 2015

14C in cropland soil of a long-term field trial – experimental variability and implications for estimating carbon turnover

J. Leifeld1 and J. Mayer2 J. Leifeld and J. Mayer
  • 1Climate/Air Pollution Group, Institute for Sustainability Sciences, Agroscope, Reckenholzstrasse 191, 8046, Zurich, Switzerland
  • 2Water Protection/Substance Flows Group, Institute for Sustainability Sciences, Agroscope, Reckenholzstrasse 191, 8046, Zurich, Switzerland

Abstract. Because of their controlled nature, the presence of independent replicates, and their known management history, long-term field experiments are key to the understanding of factors controlling soil carbon. Together with isotope measurements, they provide profound insight into soil carbon dynamics. For soil radiocarbon, an important tracer for understanding these dynamics, experimental variability across replicates is usually not accounted for; hence, a relevant source of uncertainty for quantifying turnover rates is missing. Here, for the first time, radiocarbon measurements of five independent field replicates, and for different layers, of soil from the 66-year-old controlled field experiment ZOFE in Zurich, Switzerland, are used to address this issue. 14C variability was the same across three different treatments and for three different soil layers between the surface and 90 cm depths. On average, experimental variability in 14C content was 12 times the analytical error but still, on a relative basis, smaller than variability in soil carbon concentration. Despite a relative homogeneous variability across the field and along the soil profile, the curved nature of the relationship between radiocarbon content and modelled carbon mean residence time implies that the absolute error of calculated soil carbon turnover time increases with soil depth. In our field experiment findings on topsoil carbon turnover variability would, if applied to subsoil, tend to underweight turnover variability even if experimental variability in the subsoil isotope concentration is the same. Together, experimental variability in radiocarbon is an important component in an overall uncertainty assessment of soil carbon turnover.

Short summary
We present 14C data for field replicates of a controlled agricultural long-term experiment. We show that 14C variability is, on average, 12 times that of the analytical precision of the 14C measurement. Experimental 14C variability is related to neither management nor soil depth. Application of a simple carbon turnover model reveals that experimental variability of radiocarbon results in higher absolute uncertainties of estimated carbon turnover time for deeper soil layers.