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Analysis of peat soil organic carbon, total nitrogen, soil water content and basal respiration: Is there a ‘best’ drying temperature?

Soil needs to be dried in order to determine water content, soil organic carbon content (SOC) and total nitrogen content (N). Water content is commonly measured using standard methods that involve drying temperatures of 105–110° C. Recommended drying temperatures differ for the determination of SOC and N. However, at moderate drying temperatures, microbial activity might lead to organic matter mineralisation and nitrification, and thus to an underestimation of SOC and N. Furthermore, low drying temperatures might not dewater soils suf-ficiently to correctly determine water content or bulk density. Chemical processes such as thermal decomposition and volatilisation might occur at higher temperatures. This raises the question of whether the same sample can be used to determine water content, SOC and N. Further, the effect of drying, especially at different temperatures, on basal respiration of peat soils determined by incubation experiments is so far unknown. Effects of drying temperature might be especially severe for peat soils, which have high SOC and water contents. This study systematically evaluated the effect of different drying temperatures (20, 40, 60, 80 and 105° C) on the determination of mass loss (proxy for water content), SOC and N over a wide range of 15 different peat soils comprising amorphous, Sphagnum and sedge peat substrate. The investigated peat soils had SOC contents ranging from approximately 16.8–52.5% with different degrees of decomposition. They were thus separated into two ‘peat groups’ (amorphous and weakly decomposed). In a subsequent investigation, an incubation experiment was carried out on a subset of five peat soils to investigate the pre-treatment effect of different drying temperatures on basal respiration. The results showed that amorphous samples should be dried at 105° C to determine water content. The weakly decomposed peat soils in the study had reliable water contents for drying temperatures above 60° C. For temperatures below 80° C, the determined SOC and N were biased by residual water. This could be corrected for weakly decomposed samples, but for amorphous samples only for drying temperatures ≥60° C. Thus, mineralisation of soil organic matter is likely to take place at lower drying temperatures which are not recommendable especially for amorphous peat prone to high mineralisation rates. This is supported by the results of the incubation experiment: The effect of peat type (amorphous topsoil vs. weakly decomposed subsoil) was greater than the effect of different drying temperatures, which nonetheless affected respiration rates. The differences between all five soils were consistent, irrespective of the drying temperature. Thus, incubation exper-iments might be possible using peat dried at moderate temperatures.

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