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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2022

Probability Distributions of Radiocarbon in Open Linear Compartmental Systems at Steady-State

Chanca, Ingrid; Trumbore, Susan; Macario, Kita; Sierra, Carlos A.


Radiocarbon (C-14) is commonly used as a tracer of the carbon cycle to determine how fast carbon moves between different reservoirs such as plants, soils, rivers, or oceans. However such studies mostly emphasize the mean value (as Delta C-14) of an unknown probability distribution. We introduce a novel algorithm to compute Delta C-14 distributions from knowledge of the age distribution of carbon in linear compartmental systems at steady-state. Our results demonstrate that the shape of the distributions might differ according to the speed of cycling of ecosystem compartments and their connectivity within the system, and might contain multiple peaks and long tails. The distributions are also sensitive to the variations of Delta C-14 in the atmosphere over time, as influenced by the counteracting anthropogenic effects of fossil-fuel emissions (C-14-free) and nuclear weapons testing (excess C-14). Lastly, we discuss insights that such distributions can offer for sampling and design of experiments aiming to capture the precise variance of Delta C-14 values present in the multi-compartmental ecosystems.


radiocarbon; open systems; pool models; carbon age; transit time; ecology

Published in

Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
2022, volume: 127, number: 3, article number: e2021JG006673

Authors' information

Chanca, Ingrid
Max Planck Society
Chanca, Ingrid
Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro
Trumbore, Susan
Max Planck Society
Macario, Kita
Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology
Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry

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