Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)



First Advisor

Julia N. Perdrial


Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) plays an important role in the global carbon (C) cycle because increases in aqueous C potentially contribute to rising atmospheric CO2 levels. Over the past few decades, headwater streams of the northern hemisphere have shown increased amounts of DOC coinciding with decreased acid deposition. Although the issue is widely discussed in the literature, a mechanistic link between precipitation composition and stream water DOC has not yet been proposed.

In this study, the breakup of soil aggregates is hypothesized as the mechanistic link between reduced acid deposition and DOC increases in surface waters. Specific hypotheses state that soil aggregate dispersion (and the ensuing release of DOC from these aggregates) is driven by a decrease in soil solution ionic strength (IS, decreasing the tendency of flocculation) as well as a shift from divalent to monovalent cations (reducing the propensity for cation bridging) in soil solution.

These hypotheses were tested on soil samples collected from several riparian zone and hillslope positions along three flagged transects in the acid-impacted Sleepers River Research Watershed in northeastern Vermont. To determine soil C content by landscape position, samples from transects spanning hilltop to hillslope and riparian area, as well as replicated hillslope and riparian samples (n=40) were analyzed. Aqueous soil extracts simulate the flushing of soils during hydrologic events (e.g. rain or snowmelt) and were used to test the effect of soil solution chemistry on DOC release. Extracts were prepared with solutions of varying IS (0-0.005M) and composition (CaCl2 and NaCl) on replicated soil samples (n=54) and changes in DOC release and aggregate size were monitored. As IS of the extraction solution increased, the amount of DOC in solution decreased, and aggregate size increased. This was presumably due to cations bridging and diffuse double layer effects. This effect was reversed in low ionic strength solutions where DOC release was significantly higher and average aggregate size was smaller. While extraction solution controlled the amount of C liberated, landscape position impacted the quality, but not quantity, of released DOC.

This study is the first to propose a mechanistic link observed changes in DOC in surface waters and recovery from acidification and provides initial experimental evidence that soil aggregates indeed play a role in the generation of DOC.



Number of Pages

92 p.

Included in

Geology Commons