Uncertainties in forest soil carbon and nitrogen estimates related to soil sampling methods in the Delaware River Basin

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Bing Xu1, Alain F Plante2, Arthur H Johnson2 and Yude Pan3, (1)University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, United States, (2)University of Pennsylvania, Earth & Environmental Science, Philadelphia, PA, United States, (3)USDA Forest Service, Vallejo, CA, United States
Estimating forest soil carbon and nitrogen (CN) is critical to understanding ecosystem responses to changing climate, disturbance and forest management practices. Most of the uncertainty in soil CN cycling is associated with the difficulty in characterizing soil properties in field sampling because forest soils can be rocky, inaccessible and spatially heterogeneous. A composite coring technique is broadly applied as the standard FIA soil sampling protocol. However, the accuracy of this method might be limited by soil compaction, rock obstruction and plot selection problems during sampling. In contrast, the quantitative soil pit sampling method may avoid these problems and provides direct measurements of soil mass, rock volume and CN concentration representative of a larger ground surface area. In this study, the two sampling methods were applied in 60 forest plots, randomly located in three research areas in the Delaware River Basin in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region. In each of the plots, one quantitative soil pit was excavated and three soil cores were collected. Our results show that average soil bulk density in the top 20 cm mineral soil measured from the soil cores was consistently lower than bulk density measured by soil pits. However, the volume percentage of coarse fragments measured by the core method was also significantly lower than the pit method. Conversely, CN concentrations were greater in core samples compared to pit samples. The resulting soil carbon content (0-20 cm) was estimated to be 4.1 ± 0.4 kg m-2 in the core method compared to 4.5 ± 0.4 kg m-2 in the pit method. Lower bulk density but higher CN concentration and lower coarse fragments content from the cores have offset each other, resulting in no significant differences in CN content from the soil pit method. Deeper soil (20-40 cm), which is not accessible in the core method, accounted for 29% of the total soil carbon stock (0-40 cm) in the pit method. Our results suggest that, although soil CN stocks measured by the two sampling methods had no significant difference, some systematic biases appear to exist in the FIA soil core method in measuring soil bulk density and coarse fragment content. Data collected by the quantitative soil pit method may be considered more accurate and can access greater soil depth, but substantially labor intensity may hamper sample sizes.