A detailed pyrolysis-GC/MS analysis of a black carbon-rich acidic colluvial soil (Atlantic ranker) from NW Spain

J. Kaal, A. Martinez-Cortizas, K.G.J. Nierop, P. Buurman

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Despite the potentially large contribution of black carbon (BC) to the recalcitrant soil organic matter pool, the molecular-level composition of aged BC has hardly been investigated. Pyrolysis-GC/MS, which provides structural information on complex mixtures of organic matter, was applied to the NaOH-extractable organic matter of an acidic colluvial soil (Atlantic ranker) sampled with high resolution (5 cm) that harbours a fire record of at least 8.5 ka. Additionally, 5 charcoal samples from selected soil layers were characterised using pyrolysis-GC/MS for comparison. Pyrolysis-GC/MS allowed distinguishing between BC and non-charred organic matter. It is argued that a large proportion of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzenes and benzonitrile in the pyrolysates of the extractable organic matter, together accounting for 21¿54% of total identified peak area, derived from BC. In charcoal samples, these compounds accounted for 60¿98% of the pyrolysis products. The large quantity of BC in almost all samples suggested a key role of fire in Holocene soil evolution. The high C content of the soil (up to 136 g C kg¿1 soil) may be attributed to the presence of recalcitrant organic C as BC, in addition to the sorptive preservation processes traditionally held responsible for long-term C storage in acid soils. Interactions between reactive Al hydroxides and BC could explain the longevity of BC in the soil. This work is the first thorough pyrolysis-GC/MS based study on ancient fire-affected organic matter.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2395-2405
JournalApplied Geochemistry
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • c-13 nmr-spectroscopy
  • volcanic ash soils
  • solid-state c-13
  • organic-matter
  • forest soil
  • chemical-composition
  • mass-spectrometry
  • humic acids
  • gc-ms
  • biomass

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