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Keywords:

  • radiocarbon;
  • soil organic carbon;
  • stable isotopes;
  • desert

[1] We examined soil organic C (OC) turnover and transport across the rainfall transition from a biotic, arid site to a largely abiotic, hyperarid site. With this transition, OC concentrations decrease, and C cycling slows precipitously, both in surface horizons and below ground. The concentration and isotopic character of soil OC across this transition reflect decreasing rates of inputs, decomposition, and downward transport. OC concentrations in the arid soil increase slightly with depth in the upper meter, but are generally low and variable (∼0.05%; total inventory of 1.82 kg m−2); OC-Δ14C values decrease from modern (+7‰) to very 14C-depleted (−966‰) with depth; and OC-δ13C values are variable (−23.7‰ to –14.1‰). Using a transport model, we show that these trends reflect relatively rapid cycling in the upper few centimeters, and spatially variable preservation of belowground OC from root inputs, possibly during a previous, wetter climate supporting higher soil OC concentrations. In the driest soil, the OC inventory is the lowest among the sites (0.19 kg m−2), and radiocarbon values are 14C-depleted (−365‰ to –696‰) but show no trend with depth, indicating belowground OC inputs and long OC residence times throughout the upper meter (104 y). A distinct depth trend in δ13C values and OC/ON values within the upper 40 cm at the driest site may reflect photochemical alteration of organic matter at the soil surface, combined with limited subsurface decomposition and downward transport. We argue that while root inputs are preserved at the wetter sites, C cycling in the most hyperarid soil occurs through infrequent, rapid dissolved transport of highly photodegraded organic matter during rare rain events, each followed by a pulse of decomposition and subsequent prolonged drought. These belowground inputs are likely a primary control on the character, activity, and depth distribution of small microbial populations. While the lack of water is the dominant control on C cycling, very low C/N ratios of organic matter suggest that when rainfall occurs, hyperarid soils are effectively C limited. The preservation of fossil root fragments in the sediment beneath the driest soil indicates that wetter climate conditions preceded formation of this soil, and that vadose zone microbial activity has been extremely limited for the past 2 My.