Soil Aggregates as a Source of Dissolved Organic Carbon to Streams: An Experimental Study on the Effect of Solution Chemistry on Water Extractable Carbon
Over the past two decades, headwater streams of the northern hemisphere have shown increased amounts of dissolved organic carbon (DOC), coinciding with decreased acid deposition. The exact nature of the mechanistic link between precipitation composition and stream water DOC is still widely debated in the literature. We hypothesize that soil aggregates are the main source of stream water DOC and that DOC release is greater in organic rich, riparian soils vs. hillslope soils. To test these hypotheses, we collected soils from two main landscape positions (hillslope and riparian zones) from the acid-impacted Sleepers River Research Watershed in northeastern Vermont. We performed aqueous soil extracts with solutions of different ionic strength (IS) and composition to simulate changes in soil solution. We monitored dynamic changes in soil particle size, aggregate architecture and composition, leachate DOC concentrations, dissolved organic matter (DOM) characteristics by fluorescence spectroscopy and trends in bioavailability. In low IS solutions, extractable DOC concentrations were significantly higher, particle size (by laser diffraction) was significantly smaller and organic material was separated from mineral particles in scanning electron microscope observations. Furthermore, higher DOC concentrations were found in Na+ compared to Ca2+ solutions of the same IS. These effects are attributed to aggregate dispersion due to expanding diffuse double layers in decreased IS solutions and to decreased bridging by divalent cations. Landscape position impacted quality but not quantity of released DOC. Overall, these results indicate that soil aggregates might be one important link between Critical Zone inputs (i.e., precipitation) and exports in streams.