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Litter decay controlled by temperature, not soil properties, affecting future soil carbon

Gregorich, E.G., Janzen, H., Ellert, B.H., Helgason, B.L., Qian, B., Zebarth, B.J., Angers, D.A., Beyaert, R.P., Drury, C.F., Duguid, S.D., May, W.E., McConkey, B.G., Dyck, M.F. (2017). Litter decay controlled by temperature, not soil properties, affecting future soil carbon, 23(4), 1725-1734.


© 2016 Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada. Global Change Biology. Published by 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Widespread global changes, including rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, climate warming and loss of biodiversity, are predicted for this century; all of these will affect terrestrial ecosystem processes like plant litter decomposition. Conversely, increased plant litter decomposition can have potential carbon-cycle feedbacks on atmospheric CO2 levels, climate warming and biodiversity. But predicting litter decomposition is difficult because of many interacting factors related to the chemical, physical and biological properties of soil, as well as to climate and agricultural management practices. We applied 13C-labelled plant litter to soil at ten sites spanning a 3500-km transect across the agricultural regions of Canada and measured its decomposition over five years. Despite large differences in soil type and climatic conditions, we found that the kinetics of litter decomposition were similar once the effect of temperature had been removed, indicating no measurable effect of soil properties. A two-pool exponential decay model expressing undecomposed carbon simply as a function of thermal time accurately described kinetics of decomposition. (R2 = 0.94; RMSE = 0.0508). Soil properties such as texture, cation exchange capacity, pH and moisture, although very different among sites, had minimal discernible influence on decomposition kinetics. Using this kinetic model under different climate change scenarios, we projected that the time required to decompose 50% of the litter (i.e. the labile fractions) would be reduced by 1–4 months, whereas time required to decompose 90% of the litter (including recalcitrant fractions) would be reduced by 1 year in cooler sites to as much as 2 years in warmer sites. These findings confirm quantitatively the sensitivity of litter decomposition to temperature increases and demonstrate how climate change may constrain future soil carbon storage, an effect apparently not influenced by soil properties.

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