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Warming accelerates decomposition of decades-old carbon in forest soils


Trumbore,  Susan E.
Department Biogeochemical Processes, Prof. S. E. Trumbore, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Max Planck Society;

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Hopkins, F. M., Torn, M. S., & Trumbore, S. E. (2012). Warming accelerates decomposition of decades-old carbon in forest soils. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(26), E1753-E1761. doi:10.1073/pnas.1120603109.

Global climate carbon-cycle models predict acceleration of soil organic carbon losses to the atmosphere with warming, but the size of this feedback is poorly known. The temperature sensitivity of soil carbon decomposition is commonly determined by measuring changes in the rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) production under controlled laboratory conditions. We added measurements of carbon isotopes in respired CO2 to constrain the age of carbon substrates contributing to the temperature response of decomposition for surface soils from two temperate forest sites with very different overall rates of carbon cycling. Roughly one-third of the carbon respired at any temperature was fixed from the atmosphere more than 10 y ago, and the mean age of respired carbon reflected a mixture of substrates of varying ages. Consistent with global ecosystem model predictions, the temperature sensitivity of the carbon fixed more than a decade ago was the same as the temperature sensitivity for carbon fixed less than 10 y ago. However, we also observed an overall increase in the mean age of carbon respired at higher temperatures, even correcting for potential substrate limitation effects. The combination of several age constraints from carbon isotopes showed that warming had a similar effect on respiration of decades-old and younger (<10 y) carbon but a greater effect on decomposition of substrates of intermediate (between 7 and 13 y) age. Our results highlight the vulnerability of soil carbon to warming that is years-to-decades old, which makes up a large fraction of total soil carbon in forest soils globally.