Inverse modelling of the 14C bomb pulse in stalagmites to constrain the dynamics of soil carbon cycling at selected European cave sites

Rudzka-Phillips, D.; McDermott, F.; Jackson, A.; Fleitmann, Dominik (2013). Inverse modelling of the 14C bomb pulse in stalagmites to constrain the dynamics of soil carbon cycling at selected European cave sites. Geochimica et cosmochimica acta, 112, pp. 32-51. Elsevier Science 10.1016/j.gca.2013.02.032

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The decomposition of soil organic matter (SOM) is temperature dependent, but its response to a future warmer climate remains equivocal. Enhanced rates of decomposition of SOM under increased global temperatures might cause higher CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, and could therefore constitute a strong positive feedback. The magnitude of this feedback however remains poorly understood, primarily because of the difficulty in quantifying the temperature sensitivity of stored, recalcitrant carbon that comprises the bulk (>90%) of SOM in most soils. In this study we investigated the effects of climatic conditions on soil carbon dynamics using the attenuation of the 14C ‘bomb’ pulse as recorded in selected modern European speleothems. These new data were combined with published results to further examine soil carbon dynamics, and to explore the sensitivity of labile and recalcitrant organic matter decomposition to different climatic conditions. Temporal changes in 14C activity inferred from each speleothem was modelled using a three pool soil carbon inverse model (applying a Monte Carlo method) to constrain soil carbon turnover rates at each site. Speleothems from sites that are characterised by semi-arid conditions, sparse vegetation, thin soil cover and high mean annual air temperatures (MAATs), exhibit weak attenuation of atmospheric 14C ‘bomb’ peak (a low damping effect, D in the range: 55–77%) and low modelled mean respired carbon ages (MRCA), indicating that decomposition is dominated by young, recently fixed soil carbon. By contrast, humid and high MAAT sites that are characterised by a thick soil cover and dense, well developed vegetation, display the highest damping effect (D = c. 90%), and the highest MRCA values (in the range from 350 ± 126 years to 571 ± 128 years). This suggests that carbon incorporated into these stalagmites originates predominantly from decomposition of old, recalcitrant organic matter. SOM turnover rates cannot be ascribed to a single climate variable, e.g. (MAAT) but instead reflect a complex interplay of climate (e.g. MAAT and moisture budget) and vegetation development.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


10 Strategic Research Centers > Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research (OCCR)
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geological Sciences

UniBE Contributor:

Fleitmann, Dominik


500 Science > 550 Earth sciences & geology




Elsevier Science




Monika Wälti-Stampfli

Date Deposited:

08 Aug 2014 12:46

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 14:34

Publisher DOI:





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