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Organic-carbon sequestration in soil/sediment of the Mississippi River deltaic plain — Data; landscape distribution, storage, and inventory; accumulation rates; and recent loss, including a post-Katrina preliminary analysis

April 28, 2007

Soil/sediment of the Mississippi River deltaic plain (MRDP) in southeastern Louisiana is rich in organic carbon (OC). The MRDP contains about 2 percent of all OC in the surface meter of soil/sediment in the Mississippi River Basin (MRB). Environments within the MRDP differ in soil/sediment organic carbon (SOC) accumulation rate, storage, and inventory. The focus of this study was twofold: (1) develop a database for OC and bulk density for MRDP soil/sediment; and (2) estimate SOC storage, inventory, and accumulation rates for the dominant environments (brackish, intermediate, and fresh marsh; natural levee; distributary; backswamp; and swamp) in the MRDP.

Comparative studies were conducted to determine which field and laboratory methods result in the most accurate and reproducible bulk-density values for each marsh environment. Sampling methods included push-core, vibracore, peat borer, and Hargis1 sampler. Bulk-density data for cores taken by the "short push-core method" proved to be more internally consistent than data for samples collected by other methods. Laboratory methods to estimate OC concentration and inorganic-constituent concentration included mass spectrometry, coulometry, and loss-on-ignition. For the sampled MRDP environments, these methods were comparable. SOC storage was calculated for each core with adequate OC and bulk-density data. SOC inventory was calculated using core-specific data from this study and available published and unpublished pedon data linked to SSURGO2 map units. Sample age was estimated using isotopic cesium (37Cs), lead (210Pb), and carbon (14C), elemental Pb, palynomorphs, other stratigraphic markers, and written history. SOC accumulation rates were estimated for each core with adequate age data.

Cesium-137 profiles for marsh soil/sediment are the least ambiguous. Levee and distributary 137Cs profiles show the effects of intermittent allochthonous input and/or sediment resuspension. Cesium-137 and 210Pb data gave the most consistent and interpretable information for age estimations of soil/sediment deposited during the 1900s. For several cores, isotopic 14C and 137Cs data allowed the 1963-64 nuclear weapons testing (NWT) peak-activity datum to be placed within a few-centimeter depth interval. In some cores, a too old 14C age (when compared to 137Cs and microstratigraphic-marker data) is the probable result of old carbon bound to clay minerals incorporated into the organic soil/sediment. Elemental Pb coupled with Pb source-function data allowed age estimation for soil/sediment that accumulated during the late 1920s through the 1980s. Exotic pollen (for example, Vigna unguiculata and Alternanthera philoxeroides) and other microstratigraphic indicators (for example, carbon spherules) allowed age estimations for marsh soil/sediment deposited during the settlement of New Orleans (1717-20) through the early 1900s.

For this study, MRDP distributary and swamp environments were each represented by only one core, backswamp environment by two cores, all other environments by three or more cores. MRDP core data for the surface meter soil/sediment indicate that (1) coastal marshes, abandoned distributaries, and swamps have regional SOC-storage values >16 kg m-2; (2) swamps and abandoned distributaries have the highest SOC storage values (swamp, 44.8 kg m-2; abandoned distributary, 50.9 kg m-2); (3) fresh-to-brackish marsh environments have the second highest site-specific SOC-storage values; and (4) site-specific marsh SOC storage values decrease as the salinity of the environment increases (fresh-marsh, 36.2 kg m-2; intermediate marsh, 26.2 kg m-2; brackish marsh, 21.5 kg m-2). This inverse relation between salinity and SOC storage is opposite the regional systematic increase in SOC storage with increasing salinity that is evident when SOC storage is mapped by linking pedon data to SSURGO map units (fresh marsh, 47 kg m-2; intermediate marsh, 67 kg m-2; brackish marsh, 75 kg m-2; and salt marsh, 80 kg m-2).

MRDP core data for this study also indicate that levees and backswamp have regional SOC-storage values <16 kg m-2. Group-mean SOC storage for cores from these environments are natural levee (17.0 kg m-2) and backswamp (14.1 kg m-2).

An estimate for the SOC inventory in the surface meter of soil/sediment in the MRDP can be made using the SSURGO mapped portion of the coastal-marsh vegetative-type map (13,236 km2, land-only area) published by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and U.S. Geological Survey (1997). This area has a SOC inventory (surface meter) of 677 Tg (slightly more than 2 percent of the 30,289 Tg SOC inventory for the MRB). The MRDP (6,180 km2, land-only area) has an estimated SOC inventory of 397 Tg. Most of the MRDP is located within the SSURGO mapped coastal marshlands. The entire MRDP, including water, has an area of about 10,800 km2. Using the ratio of total MRDP area to SSURGO mapped MRDP area as an adjustment, the MRDP SOC inventory is estimated at 694 Tg. This larger estimate of 694 Tg for the SOC inventory is probably more realistic, because it is reasonable to assume that the marsh sediments overlain by shallow water have comparable SOC storage to that of the adjacent land areas.

MRDP core data for this study indicate that there is some variability in long-term SOC mass-accumulation rates for centuries and millennia and that this variability may indicate important geologic changes or changes in land use. However, the consistency of the range in rates of SOC accumulation through time suggests a remarkable degree of marsh sustainability throughout the Holocene, including the recent period of significant marsh modification/channelization for human use. One example of marsh sustainability is its present ability to function as a SOC sink even with Louisiana's large-scale coastal land loss during the last several decades. With coastal-marsh restoration efforts, this sink potential will increase.

Looking to the future, a total of 1,101 g m-2 yr-1 SOC is projected to be lost from all of coastal Louisiana (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) subprovinces 1-4; not just the MRDP) through coastal erosion from year 2000 to 2050. This translates to a projected SOC-loss rate of about 0.20 percent per year.

The recent Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated the Louisiana coast during late August and late September 2005, transformed about 259 km2 (100 mi2) of marsh to open water (U.S. Geological Survey, 2005). To the extent that some or all of this land loss is permanent, this result equates to a SOC loss of about 15 Tg. This estimate is based on the year-2000 15,153-km2 land area for the LCA study area that includes LCA subprovince 4. Using the year-2000 land area, the LCA study area had an estimated SOC inventory of 858 Tg. The estimated 15 Tg SOC loss attributable to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is 1.7 percent of the year-2000 LCA inventory and 2.3 percent of the year-2000 MRDP inventory. If this SOC loss is included in the projection for the year 2050, then the MRDP would either remain a source with a net SOC loss of 3 Tg or become a weak sink with a net SOC gain of 4 Tg. These estimates are lower bounds for potential SOC flux because they are only for the surface meter of landmass.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2007
Title Organic-carbon sequestration in soil/sediment of the Mississippi River deltaic plain — Data; landscape distribution, storage, and inventory; accumulation rates; and recent loss, including a post-Katrina preliminary analysis
DOI 10.3133/pp1686B
Authors Helaine W. Markewich, Gary R. Buell, Louis D. Britsch, John P. McGeehin, John A. Robbins, John H. Wrenn, Douglas L. Dillon, Terry L. Fries, Nancy R. Morehead
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Professional Paper
Series Number 1686
Index ID pp1686B
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Georgia Water Science Center

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