We studied soil organic carbon (C) chemistry at the mountain birch forest-tundra ecotone in three regions of the Fennoscandian mountain range with comparable vegetation cover but contrasting degrees of continentality and latitude. The aim of the study was to identify functional compound classes and their relationships to decomposition and spatial variation across the ecotone and latitudinal gradient. Solid-state 13C nuclear magnetic resonance (CPMAS 13C NMR) was used to identify seven functional groups of soil organic C: alkyls, N-alkyls, O-alkyls, acetals, aromatics, phenolics and carboxyls. N-alkyls, O-alkyls and acetals are generally considered labile substrates for a large number of saprotrophic fungi and bacteria, whilst phenolics and aromatics are mainly decomposed by lignolytic organisms and contribute to the formation of soil organic matter together with aliphatic alkyls and carboxyls. All soils contained a similar proportional distribution of functional groups, although relatively high amounts of N-alkyls, O-alkyls and acetals were present in comparison to earlier published studies, suggesting that large amounts of soil C were potentially vulnerable to microbial degradation. Soil organic matter composition was different at the most southerly site (Dovrefjell, Norway), compared with the two more northerly sites (Abisko, Sweden, and Joatka, Norway), with higher concentrations of aromatics and phenolics, as well as pronounced differences in alkyl concentrations between forest and tundra soils. Clear differences between mountain birch forest and tundra heath soil was noted, with generally higher concentrations of labile carbon present in tundra soils. We conclude that, although mesic soils around the forest-tundra ecotone in Fennoscandia are a potential source of C to the atmosphere in a changing environment, the response is likely to vary between comparable ecosystems in relation to latitude and continentality as well as soil properties especially soil nitrogen content and pH.
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