Understanding the effects of early degradation on isotopic tracers: implications for sediment source attribution using compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA)

Hirave, Pranav; Wiesenberg, Guido L. B.; Birkholz, Axel; Alewell, Christine

Application of compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA) in sediment fingerprinting source apportionment studies is becoming more frequent, as it can potentially provide robust land-use-based source attribution of suspended sediments in freshwater and marine systems. Isotopic tracers such as inline-formulaδ13C values of vegetation-derived organic compounds are considered to be suitable for the CSIA-based fingerprinting method. However, a rigorous evaluation of tracer conservativeness in terms of the stability of isotopic signature during detachment and transport of soil during erosion is essential for the suitability of the method. With the aim to identify potential fractionation and shifts in tracer signature during early degradation of organic matter in surface soils, we measured concentrations and inline-formulaδ13C values of long-chain fatty acids and inline-formulan-alkanes from fresh plant biomass (as vegetation is a direct source of these compounds to the soils), degraded organic horizon (O horizon), and mineral soil (A horizon) from various forest types with different humus forms (five sites). The bulk inline-formulaδ13C values showed continuous inline-formula13C enrichment through the degradation stages from fresh plant material to the O and A horizons, ranging between 3.5 ‰ and 5.6 ‰. Compound-specific inline-formulaδ13C values showed a general inline-formula13C enrichment for both long-chain fatty acids (up to 5 ‰) and inline-formulan-alkanes (up to 3.9 ‰) from fresh plant biomass to the O horizon overlying the A horizon. However, only slight or no further changes occurred from the O to the A horizon. We also compared compound-specific inline-formulaδ13C values between two soil particle size classes (inline-formula<2 mm and inline-formula<63inline-formulaµm) from four sites and found no significant differences of tracer values between them, with even less fractionation for the long-chain inline-formulan-alkanes within the soil particle fractions. This points to the conclusion that sampling and analysing bulk soil material might be valid for the isotopic tracer applications. We further conclude that our results support the suitability of studied isotopic tracers as a representative source soil signature in the CSIA-based sediment source attribution, as they demonstrated necessary stability in the plant–soil system during organic matter degradation.

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Hirave, Pranav / Wiesenberg, Guido L. B. / Birkholz, Axel / et al: Understanding the effects of early degradation on isotopic tracers: implications for sediment source attribution using compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA). 2020. Copernicus Publications.

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