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Quantifying pH buffering capacity in acidic, organic-rich Arctic soils: Measurable proxies and implications for soil carbon degradation

by Jianqiu Zheng, Erin C Berns, Baohua Gu, Stan D Wullschleger, David E Graham
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Dynamic pH change promoted by biogeochemical reactions in Arctic tundra soils can be a major control on the production and release of CO2 and CH4, which contribute to rising global temperatures. Large quantities of soil organic matter (SOM) in these soils are susceptible to microbial decomposition, leading to pH changes during permafrost thaw. Soil pH buffering capacity (β) modulates the extent of pH change but has not been thoroughly studied and represented in predictive ecosystem scale biogeochemical models in Arctic tundra soils. In this study, we generated titration curves for 21 acidic tundra soils from three Arctic sites across northern Alaska, United States of America. Geochemical and hydrological soil properties were evaluated, and correlations with β were developed. Strong correlations between β and both gravimetric water content (Θg) (R2 = 0.847, p < 0.001) and soil water retention (SWR) (R2 = 0.849, p = 0.001) indicate that the ability of soil to retain water could be associated with its buffering properties. Correlations between β and soil organic carbon (SOC) and cation exchange capacity (CEC) were also explored, and relationships to SWR are discussed. These correlations were then used with existing soil databases reporting SOC, CEC, and SWR to estimate β across Alaska soils. We further demonstrated the quantitative relationships between β and the simulated rates of biogeochemical reactions and show that lower β leads to higher soil pH and more CH4 production. Our study provides simple proxies for β in Arctic soils and highlights the importance and implications of representing soil buffering in predictive models, thereby enabling quantitative coupling between pH dynamics associated with biogeochemical reactions. Integrating β into predictive models of Arctic biogeochemical cycling may reduce model uncertainty and further our understanding of permafrost SOM degradation accelerated by warming.