Climate change can profoundly impact carbon (C) cycling of terrestrial ecosystems. A field experiment was conducted to examine responses of total soil and microbial respiration, and microbial biomass to experimental warming and increased precipitation in a semiarid temperate steppe in northern China since April 2005. We measured soil respiration twice a month over the growing seasons, soil microbial biomass C (MBC) and N (MBN), microbial respiration (MR) once a year in the middle growing season from 2005 to 2007. The results showed that interannual variations in soil respiration, MR, and microbial biomass were positively related to interannual fluctuations in precipitation. Laboratory incubation with a soil moisture gradient revealed a constraint of the temperature responses of MR by low soil moisture contents. Across the 3 years, experimental warming decreased soil moisture, and consequently caused significant reductions in total and microbial respiration, and microbial biomass, suggesting stronger negatively indirect effects through warming-induced water stress than the positively direct effects of elevated temperature. Increased evapotranspiration under experimental warming could have reduced soil water availability below a stress threshold, thus leading to suppression of plant growth, root and microbial activities. Increased precipitation significantly stimulated total soil and microbial respiration and all other microbial parameters and the positive precipitation effects increased over time. Our results suggest that soil water availability is more important than temperature in regulating soil and microbial respiratory processes, microbial biomass and their responses to climate change in the semiarid temperate steppe. Experimental warming caused greater reductions in soil respiration than in gross ecosystem productivity (GEP). In contrast, increased precipitation stimulated GEP more than soil respiration. Our observations suggest that climate warming may cause net C losses, whereas increased precipitation may lead to net C gains in the semiarid temperate steppe. Our findings highlight that unless there is concurrent increase in precipitation, the temperate steppe in the arid and semiarid regions of northern China may act as a net C source under climate warming.
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