Journal cover Journal topic
Biogeosciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
Biogeosciences, 3, 397-420, 2006
© Author(s) 2006. This work is licensed under
the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.
19 Sep 2006
Black (pyrogenic) carbon: a synthesis of current knowledge and uncertainties with special consideration of boreal regions
C. M. Preston1 and M. W. I. Schmidt2 1Pacific Forestry Centre, Natural Resources Canada, 506 W. Burnside Rd., Victoria BC, V8Z 1M5, Canada
2Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich, Winterthurerstr. 190, 8057 Zürich, Switzerland
Abstract. The carbon (C) cycle in boreal regions is strongly influenced by fire, which converts biomass and detrital C mainly to gaseous forms (CO2 and smaller proportions of CO and CH4), and some 1–3% of mass to pyrogenic C (PyC). PyC is mainly produced as solid charred residues, including visually-defined charcoal, and a black carbon (BC) fraction chemically defined by its resistance to laboratory oxidation, plus much lower proportions of volatile soot and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). All PyC is characterized by fused aromatic rings, but varying in cluster sizes, and presence of other elements (N, O) and functional groups. The range of PyC structures is often described as a continuum from partially charred plant materials, to charcoal, soot and ultimately graphite which is formed by the combination of heat and pressure. There are several reasons for current interest in defining more precisely the role of PyC in the C cycle of boreal regions. First, PyC is largely resistant to decomposition, and therefore contributes to very stable C pools in soils and sediments. Second, it influences soil processes, mainly through its sorption properties and cation exchange capacity, and third, soot aerosols absorb solar radiation and may contribute to global warming. However, there are large gaps in the basic information needed to address these topics. While charcoal is commonly defined by visual criteria, analytical methods for BC are mainly based on various measures of oxidation resistance, or on yield of benzenepolycarboxylic acids. These methods are still being developed, and capture different fractions of the PyC structural continuum. There are few quantitative reports of PyC production and stocks in boreal forests (essentially none for boreal peatlands), and results are difficult to compare due to varying experimental goals and methods, as well as inconsistent terminology. There are almost no direct field measurements of BC aerosol production from boreal wildfires, and little direct information on rates and mechanisms for PyC loss. Structural characterization of charred biomass and forest floor from wildfires generally indicates a low level of thermal alteration, with the bulk of the material having H/C ratios still >0.2, and small aromatic cluster sizes. Especially for the more oxidation-resistant BC fraction, a variety of mainly circumstantial evidence suggests very slow decomposition, with turnover on a millennial timescale (in the order of 5–7 ky), also dependent on environmental conditions. However, there is also evidence that some PyC may be lost in only tens to hundreds of years due to a combination of lower thermal alteration and environmental protection. The potential for long-term PyC storage in soil may also be limited by its consumption by subsequent fires. Degraded, functionalized PyC is also incorporated into humified soil organic matter, and is transported eventually to marine sediments in dissolved and particulate form. Boreal production is estimated as 7–17 Tg BC y−1 of solid residues and 2–2.5 Tg BC y−1 as aerosols, compared to global estimates of 40–240 and 10–30 Tg BC y−1, respectively. Primary research needs include basic field data on PyC production and stocks in boreal forests and peatlands, suitable to support C budget modeling, and development of standardized analytical methods and of improved approaches to assess the chemical recalcitrance of typical chars from boreal wildfires. To accomplish these goals effectively will require much greater emphasis on interdisciplinary cooperation.

Citation: Preston, C. M. and Schmidt, M. W. I.: Black (pyrogenic) carbon: a synthesis of current knowledge and uncertainties with special consideration of boreal regions, Biogeosciences, 3, 397-420,, 2006.
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