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Keywords:

  • soil carbon;
  • particulate organic matter;
  • subalpine grassland;
  • land-use change;
  • abandonment

Abstract

Abandonment of mountain grassland often changes vegetation composition and litter quantity and quality, but related effects on labile soil organic matter (SOM) are largely unknown. The aim of this study was to investigate the impacts of grassland management and abandonment on soil carbon distribution in light (< 1.6 g cm–3) particulate organic matter (POM) and aggregation along a gradient of management intensity including hay meadows, pastures, and abandoned grasslands. The reduction of management intensity is an interregional phenomenon throughout the European Alps. We therefore selected sites from two typical climate regions, namely at Stubai Valley, Austria (MAT: 3°C, MAP: 1097 mm) and Matsch Valley, Italy (MAT: 6.6°C, MAP: 527 mm), to evaluate effects of land-use change in relation to climate. Free water-floatable and free POM (wPOM, fPOM), and an occluded POM fraction (oPOM), were isolated from three water-stable aggregate size classes (2–6.3 mm, 0.25–2 mm, < 0.25 mm) using density fractionation. Aggregate mean weight diameter slightly decreased with decreasing management intensity. In contrast to absolute POM-C, fPOM-C increased in aggregates at both sites with abandonment. Because the oPOM-C was less affected by abandonment, the ratio of oPOM-C : fPOM-C shifted from > 1 to < 1 from meadow to abandoned grassland in aggregates at both sites and thus independent of climate. This suggests that in differently managed mountain grasslands free and occluded POM are functionally different SOM fractions. In bulk soil, the oPOM-C : fPOM-C ratio is better suited as an indicator for the response of SOM to management reduction in subalpine grasslands than the total soil C, absolute or relative POM-C content.