Biological and physical influences on the carbon isotope content of CO2 in a subalpine forest snowpack, Niwot Ridge, Colorado

D. R. Bowling, W. J. Massman, S. M. Schaeffer, S. P. Burns, R. K. Monson, M. W. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Considerable research has recently been devoted to understanding biogeochemical processes under winter snow cover, leading to enhanced appreciation of the importance of many winter ecological processes. In this study, a comprehensive investigation of the stable carbon isotope composition (δ13C) of CO2 within a high-elevation subalpine forest snowpack was conducted. Our goals were to study the δ13C of biological soil respiration under snow in winter, and to assess the relative importance of diffusion and advection (ventilation by wind) for gas transport within snow. In agreement with other studies, we found evidence of an active microbial community under a roughly 1-m deep snowpack during winter and into spring as it melted. Under-snow CO2mole fractions were observed up to 3,500 μmol mol-1, and δ13C of CO2 varied from ~-22 to ~-8‰. The δ13C of soil respiration calculated from mixing relationships was -26 to -24‰, and although it varied in time, it was generally close to that of the bulk organic horizon (-26.0‰). Subnivean CO2 and δ13C were quite dynamic in response to changes in soil temperature, liquid water availability, and wind events. No clear biologically-induced isotopic changes were observed during periods when microbial activity and root/rhizosphere activity were expected to vary, although such changes cannot be eliminated. There was clear evidence of isotopic enrichment associated with diffusive transport as predicted by theory, but simple diffusive enrichment (4.4‰) was not observed. Instead, ventilation of the snowpack by sustained wind events in the forest canopy led to changes in the diffusively-enriched gas profile. The isotopic influence of diffusion on gases in the snowpack and litter was greatest at greater depths, due to the decreased relative contribution of advection at depth. There were highly significant correlations between the apparent isotopic content of respiration from the soil with wind speed and pressure. In summary, physical factors influencing gas transport substantially modified and potentially obscured biological factors in their effects on δ13C of CO2 within this subalpine forest snowpack.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)37-59
Number of pages23
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2009


  • Carbon dioxide
  • Microbial
  • Niwot Ridge AmeriFlux site
  • Soil respiration
  • Stable isotope
  • Winter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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