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Reappraisal of drying and wetting effects on C and N mineralization and fluxes in soils


Werner Borken, tel. +49 921 555741, fax +49 921 555799, e-mail:


In the next decades, many soils will be subjected to increased drying/wetting cycles or modified water availability considering predicted global changes in precipitation and evapotranspiration. These changes may affect the turnover of C and N in soils, but the direction of changes is still unclear. The aim of the review is the evaluation of involved mechanisms, the intensity, duration and frequency of drying and wetting for the mineralization and fluxes of C and N in terrestrial soils. Controversial study results require a reappraisal of the present understanding that wetting of dry soils induces significant losses of soil C and N. The generally observed pulse in net C and N mineralization following wetting of dry soil (hereafter wetting pulse) is short-lived and often exceeds the mineralization rate of a respective moist control. Accumulated microbial and plant necromass, lysis of live microbial cells, release of compatible solutes and exposure of previously protected organic matter may explain the additional mineralization during wetting of soils. Frequent drying and wetting diminishes the wetting pulse due to limitation of the accessible organic matter pool. Despite wetting pulses, cumulative C and N mineralization (defined here as total net mineralization during drying and wetting) are mostly smaller compared with soil with optimum moisture, indicating that wetting pulses cannot compensate for small mineralization rates during drought periods. Cumulative mineralization is linked to the intensity and duration of drying, the amount and distribution of precipitation, temperature, hydrophobicity and the accessible pool of organic substrates. Wetting pulses may have a significant impact on C and N mineralization or flux rates in arid and semiarid regions but have less impact in humid and subhumid regions on annual time scales. Organic matter stocks are progressively preserved with increasing duration and intensity of drought periods; however, fires enhance the risk of organic matter losses under dry conditions. Hydrophobicity of organic surfaces is an important mechanism that reduces C and N mineralization in topsoils after precipitation. Hence, mineralization in forest soils with hydrophobic organic horizons is presumably stronger limited than in grassland or farmland soils. Even in humid regions, suboptimal water potentials often restrict microbial activity in topsoils during growing seasons. Increasing summer droughts will likely reduce the mineralization and fluxes of C and N whereas increasing summer precipitation could enhance the losses of C and N from soils.