Sources and chemical stability of soil organic carbon in natural and created coastal marshes of Louisiana

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Coastal marshes are globally important for sequestering carbon, yet sea-level rise and anthropogenic stressors can reduce their capacity as carbon sinks. Marsh restoration can offset a portion of carbon loss through the degradation of natural marshes, but potential differences in the sources and stability of soil organic carbon (SOC) between created and natural marshes may affect their function as a long-term carbon sink. Here, we examine the sources and chemical stability of SOC in natural and created marshes across the Gulf coast of Louisiana, USA. Marshes were examined along an estuarine salinity gradient in a former interdistributary basin of the Mississippi River Delta and in six created marshes across a 32-year chronosequence and a natural reference marsh (n = 6) in the Chenier Plain. Carbon source was assessed using δC analysis and chemical stability was determined through an acid hydrolysis digestion that removed labile carbon (LC). Soil δC values suggested that the local vegetation dominated SOC in all natural marshes although brackish marshes had a mix of sources and degradation of SOC. Recalcitrant carbon (RC) was 72.2 ± 0.5 % of SOC across fresh, brackish and saline marshes. The depth-averaged RC accumulation rate was almost three times greater than LC accumulation rate, yet both contributed significantly to accretion and long-term SOC accumulation (124-132 g m y in natural marshes). RC and SOC accumulation rate increased with mineral sediment accumulation rate. For the created marshes, SOC became increasingly recalcitrant due to an increase in in-situ plant inputs, but accumulation rates were lower than the natural marshes. Overall, this study illustrates that natural marshes have a large stock of RC from the vegetation while dredge sediment created marshes have no plant-derived carbon initially, which accumulates slowly thereafter. Restoration practices may be improved by preserving and augmenting these deteriorating but carbon-rich natural marshes.

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The Science of the total environment

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