Soil survey: microbial, chemical and physical drivers of carbon cycle tracers

soil samples
19 of the 20 soils included in the soil survey study (peat soils not shown).

Two trace gases (carbonyl sulfide and the oxygen isotopes of CO2) show promise to help disentangle carbon cycle processes, but their soil fluxes need additional characterization. As in leaves, we anticipate that carbonic anhydrase (CA) enzymes in soil microbes drive uptake of atmospheric COS by soils (COS + H2O -> CO2 + H2S) and exchange of the oxygen isotopic signature between atmospheric CO2 and water (CO2 + H2O <-> HCO3 + H+). We performed a soil survey to test whether soil microbial CA drive the soil fluxes of these two potential carbon cycle tracers. By measuring the microbial, chemical, and physical properties of a diverse set of soils, we set out to determine the best predictors of exchange of COS and 18O-CO2, and specifically whether the abundance or diversity of microbial CA was the top predictor.

soil sample map
Sampling locations include a range of biomes.

With the help of a large number of colleagues*, we collected and processed 20 soil samples from sites around the United States (including Hawaii) and from two sites in Cambodia. These soils represented a range of biomes and land use, as a number of soils came from sites used for agriculture.

working with soil
Working with soils is fun! Sieving soil replicates, air drying, incubating at 30% water holding capacity, and quantifying gas fluxes!

This was my first experience working with soils, and I had a fantastic time! Soils are the result of coevolving biotic and abiotic components, and the results can be incredibly diverse. This diversity is evident in the range soil color and texture (see photo above), and was mirrored in our physical and chemical measurements. With support from a DOE Joint Genome Institute Community Science Program, we will be characterizing the microbial communities and their carbonic anhydrase expression to test whether soil microbial CA are linked with the soil exchange of these potential carbon cycle tracers.

*Max Berkelhammer, Ken Bible, Sebastien Biraud, Kristin Boye, Nona Ciariello, Ingrid Coughlin, Ankur Desai, Pat Dowell, Evan Goldman, Tom Guilderson, Paul Hanson, Marco Keiluweit, Kehaulani Marshall, Amy Meredith, Jesse Miller, Bharat Rastogi, Ulli Seibt, Christian von Sperber, Chris Still, Wu Sun, Jonathan Thom, Mary Whelan, Peter Vitousek.

Manuscript presenting first yearlong study of carbonyl sulfide fluxes

Harvard Forest EMS tower
Harvard Forest EMS tower

Our manuscript on the “Seasonal fluxes of carbonyl sulfide in a midlatitude forest” was just recently published in PNAS (document online). Lead author Róisín Commane and I met at Harvard Forest where she installed an Aerodyne Research Inc., laser spectrometer to study the seasonal behavior of carbonyl sulfide (interchangeably called OCS and COS by different groups). Of particular interest are the common pathways to both CO2 and OCS, for example both trace gases react with carbonic anhydrase enzymes in leaves. This commonality may provide a quantitative, independent measure of the photosynthetic pathway for carbon assimilation.

In this study, we find that vegetative uptake accounted for 72% of annual uptake of OCS, and nighttime uptake through stomata and soil uptake accounted for the remainder. Emissions of OCS from the forest canopy and soils were observed episodically at the forest, and by an unknown mechanism.

We find that OCS and CO2 are in certain cases affected by different processes, making their relationship variable. Thus, OCS cannot be used as a direct tracer of photosynthetic activity, but can probe various aspects of ecosystem activity, such as stomatal conductance, which will be useful for constraining aspects of carbon cycling models.

Manuscript evaluating a suite of flux-gradient methods for determining ecosystem H2 fluxes

A manuscript I’ve been working on entitled “Ecosystem fluxes of hydrogen: a comparison of flux-gradient methods,” was now been published in Atmospheric Measurement Techniques (view paper online). Our goal was to present a detailed experimental approach for measuring ecosystem fluxes of H2 and to test different so-called “flux-gradient methods” for calculating the H2 fluxes. Some common trace gas flux methods, e.g. eddy covariance, are not available for species like H2 that cannot be measured precisely at high frequencies (<1 Hz). We hope this paper will help inform the design of future studies for which flux-gradient methods might be the best option for measuring trace gas fluxes.

Here are a couple videos on the instrument deployment and design for more information.

H2 fluxes were measured at Harvard Forest, MA
H2 fluxes were measured at Harvard Forest, MA

Thesis Defense!

I defended my thesis entitled “Field Measurement of the Fate of Atmospheric H2 in a Forest Environment: from Canopy to Soil”.

I was honored to receive the 2012 Carl-Gustaf Rossby Prize for my thesis  (link to .pdf).

It was an incredible feeling to defend. I really enjoyed preparing and giving my thesis defense presentation. It’s not often that one gets to present the culmination of six years of hard work and personal development to colleagues, family, and friends. I am grateful for mentorship from my advisor Ron Prinn, my thesis committee (Steve Wofsy – Harvard, Bill Munger – Harvard, Tanja Bosak – MIT, Colleen Hansel – WHOI, Shuhei Ono – MIT), and many others along the way!

Spotlight on H2 fluxes at Harvard Forest

PAOC Spotlight: Back to the forest Interview

Micro-organisms have produced dramatic shifts in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and continue to be important drivers of ocean- and land-atmosphere exchanges of gases that have a strong influence on atmospheric composition and climate. An interesting example is the microbial influence on atmospheric molecular hydrogen (H2), which dominates the fate of this gas in the atmosphere. H2 is emitted to the atmosphere by about half natural and half anthropogenic, or human-induced, processes but it is predominantly removed from the atmosphere by microorganisms in the soil, which makes this process the most important, yet least understood, player in the atmospheric H2 budget.

The MIT Program in Oceans, Atmospheres, and Climate interviewed me on the current state of my work with a custom instrument deployed at the Harvard Forest Long Term Ecological Research site in central Massachusetts. Laura is in the Climate Physics and Chemistry Program. Her advisor is Ron Prinn.

Helping deploy Anita’s instrument to Darjeeling, India

Update: The first publication from Dr. Anita Ganesan’s work in Darjeeling has been published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (view document online).

I’m in my second week in India, where I am helping fellow Prinn-group graduate student Anita Ganesan deploy her gas chromatograph to Darjeeling, a town high on a ridge in West Bengal in the foothills of the Himalayas (Anita has a blog now!). It’s quite a trek to get to the Bose Institute where her instrument will be housed. We spent a few days adjusting to the change in time and culture in the hectic city of Kolkata. A haze hung over the city, making the day seem darker and the nights lighter, and there was a constant smell of burning. It was not unpleasant, but the concerns about the impact of particulate levels on air quality and health that we are taught in the classroom were made real. Two million people in this city and its surroundings breathe this local atmosphere daily, until it is exported to the globe. Continue reading “Helping deploy Anita’s instrument to Darjeeling, India”

Instrument deployment at Harvard Forest

Instrument deployment to Harvard Forest
Instrument deployment – Harvard Forest

After over a year of designing, building, and testing a custom instrument system to measure fluxes of molecular hydrogen (H2), I deployed the system to the Harvard Forest Long Term Ecological Research site in Petersham, Massachusetts ( With the instrument installed, I will measure hydrogen fluxes for a year to determine the seasonal dynamics of H2 cycling in this mixed deciduous forest, and in particular, to characterize the strong soil sink for atmospheric H2.

The instrument shed was tight, and I was packing a lot of equipment. But the move in day was a successful and fun experience thanks to the help of colleagues at Harvard University.

This short documentary created by fellow PhD student Ryan Abernathey highlights the challenges and excitement of move-in day. But the work has only just begun…

Laura at Harvard Forest from Ryan Abernathey on Vimeo.