Articles | Volume 3, issue 1
Original research article
06 Feb 2017
Original research article |  | 06 Feb 2017

Thermal alteration of soil organic matter properties: a systematic study to infer response of Sierra Nevada climosequence soils to forest fires

Samuel N. Araya, Marilyn L. Fogel, and Asmeret Asefaw Berhe

Abstract. Fire is a major driver of soil organic matter (SOM) dynamics, and contemporary global climate change is changing global fire regimes. We conducted laboratory heating experiments on soils from five locations across the western Sierra Nevada climosequence to investigate thermal alteration of SOM properties and determine temperature thresholds for major shifts in SOM properties. Topsoils (0 to 5 cm depth) were exposed to a range of temperatures that are expected during prescribed and wild fires (150, 250, 350, 450, 550, and 650 °C). With increase in temperature, we found that the concentrations of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) decreased in a similar pattern among all five soils that varied considerably in their original SOM concentrations and mineralogies. Soils were separated into discrete size classes by dry sieving. The C and N concentrations in the larger aggregate size fractions (2–0.25 mm) decreased with an increase in temperature, so that at 450 °C the remaining C and N were almost entirely associated with the smaller aggregate size fractions ( <  0.25 mm). We observed a general trend of 13C enrichment with temperature increase. There was also 15N enrichment with temperature increase, followed by 15N depletion when temperature increased beyond 350 °C. For all the measured variables, the largest physical, chemical, elemental, and isotopic changes occurred at the mid-intensity fire temperatures, i.e., 350 and 450 °C. The magnitude of the observed changes in SOM composition and distribution in three aggregate size classes, as well as the temperature thresholds for critical changes in physical and chemical properties of soils (such as specific surface area, pH, cation exchange capacity), suggest that transformation and loss of SOM are the principal responses in heated soils. Findings from this systematic investigation of soil and SOM response to heating are critical for predicting how soils are likely to be affected by future climate and fire regimes.

Short summary
This research investigates how fires of different intensities affect soil organic matter properties. This study identifies critical temperature thresholds of significant soil organic matter changes. Findings from this study will contribute towards estimating the amount and rate of changes in soil carbon, nitrogen, and other essential soil properties that can be expected from fires of different intensities under anticipated climate change scenarios.