Sensitivity of organic matter decomposition to warming varies with its quality


Richard T. Conant, fax +1 970 491 1965, e-mail:


The relationship between organic matter (OM) lability and temperature sensitivity is disputed, with recent observations suggesting that responses of relatively more resistant OM to increased temperature could be greater than, equivalent to, or less than responses of relatively more labile OM. This lack of clear understanding limits the ability to forecast carbon (C) cycle responses to temperature changes. Here, we derive a novel approach (denoted Q10−q) that accounts for changes in OM quality during decomposition and use it to analyze data from three independent sources. Results from new laboratory soil incubations (labile Q10−q=2.1 ± 0.2; more resistant Q10−q=3.8 ± 0.3) and reanalysis of data from other soil incubations reported in the literature (labile Q10−q=2.3; more resistant Q10−q=3.3) demonstrate that temperature sensitivity of soil OM decomposition increases with decreasing soil OM lability. Analysis of data from a cross-site, field litter bag decomposition study (labile Q10−q=3.3 ± 0.2; resistant Q10−q=4.9 ± 0.2) shows that litter OM follows the same pattern, with greater temperature sensitivity for more resistant litter OM. Furthermore, the initial response of cultivated soils, presumably containing less labile soil OM (Q10−q=2.4 ± 0.3) was greater than that for undisturbed grassland soils (Q10−q=1.7 ± 0.1). Soil C losses estimated using this approach will differ from previous estimates as a function of the magnitude of the temperature increase and the proportion of whole soil OM comprised of compounds sensitive to temperature over that temperature range. It is likely that increased temperature has already prompted release of significant amounts of C to the atmosphere as CO2. Our results indicate that future losses of litter and soil C may be even greater than previously supposed.