Topographic controls on black carbon accumulation in Alaskan black spruce forest soils: Implications for organic matter dynamics

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


There is still much uncertainty as to how wildfire affects the accumulation of burn residues (such as black carbon (BC)) in the soil, and the corresponding changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) composition in boreal forests. We investigated SOC and BC composition in black spruce forests on different landscape positions in Alaska, USA. Mean BC stocks in surface mineral soils (0.34 ± 0.09 kg C m-2) were higher than in organic soils (0.17 ± 0.07 kg C m-2), as determined at four sites by three different 13C Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy-based techniques. Aromatic carbon, protein, BC, and the alkyl:O-alkyl carbon ratio were higher in mineral soil than in organic soil horizons. There was no trend between mineral soil BC stocks and fire frequencies estimated from lake sediment records at four sites, and soil BC was relatively modern ( < 54-400 years, based on mean Δ14C ranging from 95.1 to -54.7‰). A more extensive analysis (90 soil profiles) of mineral soil BC revealed that interactions among landscape position, organic layer depth, and bulk density explained most of the variance in soil BC across sites, with less soil BC occurring in relatively cold forests with deeper organic layers. We suggest that shallower organic layer depths and higher bulk densities found in warmer boreal forests are more favorable for BC production in wildfire, and more BC is integrated with mineral soil than organic horizons. Soil BC content likely reflected more recent burning conditions influenced by topography, and implications of this for SOC composition (e. g., aromaticity and protein content) are discussed.

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