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Building on the synthesis of carbon reservoirs in Earth's subsurface, this chapter focuses on the forms, cycling, and fate of the carbon supporting microbial life in the terrestrial and marine subsurface. As the subsurface is estimated to host a vast reservoir of life on Earth, identifying the carbon compounds that life uses for energy and growth is key to understanding ecosystem functioning in the past and at present, and also for extrapolating these findings to the search for life in the universe. This chapter highlights advances in quantifying small carbon compounds, measuring rates of carbon turnover, and the fate of carbon in the deep biosphere.
Speleothem organic matter can be a powerful tracer for past environmental conditions and karst processes. Carbon isotope measurements (δ13C and 14C) in particular can provide crucial information on the provenance and age of speleothem organic matter, but are challenging due to low concentrations of organic matter in stalagmites. Here, we present a method development study on extraction and isotopic characterization of speleothem organic matter using a rapid procedure with low laboratory contamination risk. An extensive blank assessment allowed us to quantify possible sources of contamination through the entire method. Although blank contamination is consistently low (1.7 ± 0.34 – 4.3 ± 0.86 μg C for the entire procedure), incomplete sample decarbonation poses a still unresolved problem of the method, but can be detected when considering both δ13C and 14C values. We test the method on five stalagmites, showing reproducible results on samples as small as 7 μg C for δ13C and 20 μg C for 14C. Furthermore, we find consistently lower non-purgeable organic carbon (NPOC) 14C values compared to the carbonate 14C over the bomb spike interval in two stalagmites from Yok Balum Cave, Belize, suggesting overprint of a pre-aged or even fossil source of carbon on the organic fraction incorporated by these stalagmites.
Substances enriched with radiocarbon can easily contaminate samples and laboratories used for natural abundance measurements. We have developed a new method using wet chemical oxidation for swabbing laboratories and equipment to test for 14C contamination. Here, we report the findings of 18 months’ work and more than 800 tests covering studies at multiple locations. Evidence of past and current use of enriched 14C was found at all but one location and a program of testing and communication was used to mitigate its effects. Remediation was attempted with mixed success and depended on the complexity and level of the contamination. We describe four cases from different situations.
The radiocarbon content of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in rivers, lakes, and other non-saline waters can provide valuable information on carbon cycling dynamics in the environment. DOC is typically prepared for 14C analysis by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) either by ultraviolet (UV) oxidation or by freeze-drying and sealed tube combustion. We present here a new method for the rapid analysis of 14C of DOC using wet chemical oxidation (WCO) and automated headspace sampling of CO2. The approach is an adaption of recently developed methods using aqueous persulfate oxidant to determine the δ13C of DOC in non-saline water samples and the 14C content of volatile organic acids. One advantage of the current method over UV oxidation is higher throughput: 22 samples and 10 processing standards can be prepared in one day and analyzed in a second day, allowing a full suite of 14C processing standards and blanks to be run in conjunction with samples. A second advantage is that there is less potential for cross-contamination between samples.
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