The role of saline lake sediments in preserving organic matter has long been recognized. In order to further understand the preservation mechanisms, the role of clay minerals was studied. Three sediment cores, 25, 57, and 500 cm long, were collected from Qinghai Lake, NW China, and dissected into multiple subsamples. Multiple techniques were employed, including density fractionation, X-ray diffraction, scanning and transmission electron microscopy (SEM and TEM), total organic carbon (TOC) and carbon compound analyses, and surface area determination. The sediments were oxic near the water-sediment interface, but became anoxic at depth. The clay mineral content was as much as 36.8%, consisting mostly of illite, chlorite, and halloysite. The TEM observations revealed that organic matter occurred primarily as organic matter-clay mineral aggregates. The TOC and clay mineral abundances are greatest in the mid-density fraction, with a positive correlation between the TOC and mineral surface area. The TOC of the bulk sediments ranges from 1 to 3% with the non-hydrocarbon fraction being predominant, followed by bitumen, saturated hydrocarbon, aromatic hydrocarbons, and chloroform-soluble bitumen. The bimodal distribution of carbon compounds of the saturated hydrocarbon fraction suggests that organic matter in the sediments was derived from two sources: terrestrial plants and microorganisms/algae. Depth-related systematic changes in the distribution patterns of the carbon compounds suggest that the oxidizing conditions and microbial abundance near the water-sediment interface promote degradation of labile organic matter, probably in adsorbed form. The reducing conditions and small microbial biomass deeper in the sediments favor preservation of organic matter, because of the less labile nature of organic matter, probably occurring within clay mineral-organic matter aggregates that are inaccessible to microorganisms. These results have important implications for our understanding of mechanisms of organic matter preservation in saline lake sediments.

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