The Generation and Redistribution of Soil Cations in High Elevation Catenas in the Fraser Experimental Forest, Colorado, U.S.

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College of Natural Science and Mathematics, Biological Sciences


Soil catena, Soil calcium, Strontium isotopes, Atmospheric deposition, Weathering


Pedogenic processes imprint their signature on soils over the course of thousands to millions of years in most soil systems. Variation in soil forming processes – such as parent material weathering, organic material additions, hydrologic processes, and atmospheric additions – account for the distribution and sourcing of cations in ecosystems, and hence exert a strong influence on ecosystem productivity. Soil nutrient dynamics of cations also provide an indication of the dominant soil forming processes at work in a particular system. To gain insight into the generation and distribution of the soil cation pool in the Fraser Experimental Forest (FEF), we combined geochemical mass balance techniques and isotopic analyses of soil geochemical data to pedons across eight soil catenas in complex mountain terrain typical of the central Rocky Mountains. We found that mass gains in the FEF soils are primarily attributable to pedogenic additions of Ca to the soil mantle via atmospheric dust, and specifically that soil catenas on the summit landscapes were most enriched in Ca. Our data also show that atmospheric deposition contributions (calculated using Sr isotope ratios) to soils is as high as 82% (±3% SD), and that this isotopic signature in A-horizons and subsurface soil horizons diverges along a soil catena, due to both vertical and lateral hydrologic redistribution processes. Our results suggest that long term soil development and associated chemical signatures at the FEF are principally driven by the coupling of landscape scale cation supply processes, snow distribution, and snowmelt dynamics. Soil development models describing pedogenesis across catenas in montane ecosystems must pay special attention to atmospheric inputs and their redistribution. Any changes to these dynamics will affect productivity and soil/water chemistry in such ecosystems as investigated here.

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