The sources and sinks of CO 2 in caves under mixed woodland and grassland vegetation

Daniel O. Breecker, Ashley E. Payne, Jay Quade, Jay L. Banner, Carolyn E. Ball, Kyle W. Meyer, Brian D. Cowan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


We measured concentrations and stable carbon isotope compositions of carbon dioxide in the atmospheres of three caves in central Texas and one cave in southern Arizona in order to identify CO 2 sources and sinks. The vegetation above the caves studied is either savannah (two caves, above which vegetation has been minimally disturbed) or discrete patches of grassland and woodland (two caves, above which vegetation has been highly disturbed). We tested two hypotheses concerning CO 2 in the cave atmospheres: (1) cave ventilation by tropospheric air is the primary sink for CO 2 and (2) CO 2 is primarily derived from the deepest rooting plants growing above the caves. Within caves, we monitored CO 2 at individual locations on monthly and daily time-scales and measured CO 2 along transects with increasing distance from the cave entrances. We also measured CO 2 in the pore spaces of soils under grasses and trees above each of the caves. We calculated δ 13C values of respired CO 213C r) for all gas samples using measured δ 13C values and CO 2 concentrations. We then identified the sources of cave CO 2 by comparing cave-air and soil CO 2 δ 13C r values. At all locations in each Texas cave, CO 2 concentrations were highest (lowest) and δ 13C values were lowest (highest) during the summer (winter). Cave-air CO 2 concentrations consistently increased and δ 13C values consistently decreased with distance from the cave entrances. Similar but smaller magnitude seasonal variations in CO 2 concentrations occurred in the Arizona cave and no seasonal or spatial variation in the δ 13C of cave-air CO 2 was observed. The mean δ 13C r values of CO 2 in soils under grass were 3.5-4.5‰ higher than the δ 13C r values of CO 2 in soils under trees. In the caves under savannah, mean δ 13C r values of cave-air CO 2 (-24‰ in both caves) were within 1‰ of the mean δ 13C r values of CO 2 in soils under trees. In caves covered by large, contiguous areas of grassland, the δ 13C r values of cave-air CO 2 were similar to grassland soil values during the summer and were intermediate between grassland and woodland soil values during the winter. The observed spatial and temporal variations in cave-air CO 2 are consistent with density-driven ventilation controlled by seasonal surface temperature changes as the primary sink for CO 2 in the Texas caves. The consistent agreement between soil and cave δ 13C r values indicate that the same mixing and diffusion equations that are used to calculate δ 13C r values of soil CO 2 also apply to cave-air CO 2. Our results suggest that the majority of CO 2 advects or diffuses into these caves from soils as a gas rather than being transported in aqueous solution. Measured δ 13C r values and numerical production-diffusion modeling supports our hypothesis that the majority of gaseous CO 2 in these caves is derived from deeply rooted vegetation. The carbon isotope composition of groundwater and speleothem calcite used for paleoclimate records are therefore likely biased toward deeply rooted plants, even if sparsely present.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)230-246
Number of pages17
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
StatePublished - Nov 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


Dive into the research topics of 'The sources and sinks of CO 2 in caves under mixed woodland and grassland vegetation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this