The dynamics of soil organic carbon (SOC) storage and turnover are a critical component of the global carbon cycle. Mechanistic models seeking to represent these complex dynamics require detailed SOC compositions, which are currently difficult to characterize quantitatively. Here, we address this challenge by using a novel approach that combines Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) and bulk carbon X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) to determine the abundance of SOC functional groups, using elemental analysis (EA) to constrain the total amount of SOC. We used this SOC functional group abundance (SOC-fga) method to compare variability in SOC compositions as a function of depth across a subalpine watershed (East River, Colorado, USA) and found a large degree of variability in SOC functional group abundances between sites at different elevations. Soils at a lower elevation are predominantly composed of polysaccharides, while soils at a higher elevation have more substantial portions of carbonyl, phenolic, or aromatic carbon. We discuss the potential drivers of differences in SOC composition between these sites, including vegetation inputs, internal processing and losses, and elevation-driven environmental factors. Although numerical models would facilitate the understanding and evaluation of the observed SOC distributions, quantitative and meaningful measurements of SOC molecular compositions are required to guide such models. Comparison among commonly used characterization techniques on shared reference materials is a critical next step for advancing our understanding of the complex processes controlling SOC compositions.
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