The impact of elevated CO2 and N-fertilization on soil C-cycling in Lolium perenne and Trifolium repens pastures were investigated under Free Air Carbon dioxide Enrichment (FACE) conditions. For six years, swards were exposed to ambient or elevated CO2 (35 and 60 Pa pCO2) and received a low and high rate of N fertilizer. The CO2 added in the FACE plots was depleted in 13C compared to ambient (Δ− 40‰) thus the C inputs could be quantified.
On average, 57% of the C associated with the sand fraction of the soil was ‘new’ C. Smaller proportions of the C associated with the silt (18%) and clay fractions (14%) were derived from FACE. Only a small fraction of the total C pool below 10 cm depth was sequestered during the FACE experiment.
The annual net input of C in the FACE soil (0–10 cm) was estimated at 4.6 ± 2.2 and 6.3 ± 3.6 (95% confidence interval) Mg ha− 1 for T. repens and L. perenne, respectively. The maximum amount of labile C in the T. repens sward was estimated at 8.3 ± 1.6 Mg ha− 1 and 7.1 ± 1.0 Mg ha− 1 in the L. perenne sward. Mean residence time (MRT) for newly sequestered soil C was estimated at 1.8 years in the T. repens plots and 1.1 years for L. perenne. An average of 18% of total soil C in the 0–10 cm depth in the T. repens sward and 24% in the L. perenne sward was derived from FACE after 6 years exposure. The majority of the change in soil δ13C occurred in the first three years of the experiment. No treatment effects on total soil C were detected.
The fraction of FACE-derived C in the L. perenne sward was larger than in the T. repens sward. This suggests a priming effect in the L. perenne sward which led to increased losses of the old C. Although the rate of C cycling was affected by species and elevated CO2, the soil in this intensively managed grassland ecosystem did not become a sink for additional new C.