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Fertilization of boreal forest reduces both autotrophic and heterotrophic soil respiration


Per Olsson, fax +46 (0)90 786 77 50, e-mail:


The boreal forest is expected to experience the greatest warming of all forest biomes, raising concerns that some of the large quantities of soil carbon in these systems may be added to the atmosphere as CO2. However, nitrogen deposition or fertilization has the potential to increase boreal forest production and retard the decomposition of soil organic matter, hence increasing both tree stand and soil C storage.

The major contributors to soil-surface CO2 effluxes are autotrophic and heterotrophic respiration. To evaluate the effect of nutrient additions on the relative contributions from autotrophic and heterotrophic respiration, a large-scale girdling experiment was performed in a long-term nutrient optimization experiment in a 40-year-old stand of Norway spruce in northern Sweden. Trees on three nonfertilized plots and three fertilized plots were girdled in early summer 2002, and three nonfertilized and three fertilized plots were used as control plots. Each plot was 0.1 ha and contained around 230 trees. Soil-surface CO2 fluxes, soil moisture, and soil temperature were monitored in both girdled and nongirdled plots.

In late July, the time of the seasonal maximum in soil-surface CO2 efflux, the total soil-CO2 efflux in nongirdled plots was 40% lower in the fertilized than in the nonfertilized plots, while the efflux in girdled fertilized and nonfertilized plots was 50% and 60% lower, respectively, than in the corresponding nongirdled controls. We attribute these reductions to losses of the autotrophic component of the total soil-surface CO2 efflux. The estimates of autotrophic respiration are conservative as root starch reserves were depleted more rapidly in roots of girdled than in nongirdled trees. Thus, heterotrophic activity was overestimated.

Calculated on a unit area basis, both the heterotrophic and autotrophic soil respiration was significantly lower in fertilized plots, which is especially noteworthy given that aboveground production was around three times higher in fertilized than in nonfertilized plots.