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Enhanced litter input rather than changes in litter chemistry drive soil carbon and nitrogen cycles under elevated CO2: a microcosm study

Authors

  • LINGLI LIU,

    1. Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University, Campus Box 8002, Raleigh, NC 27695, USA,
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  • JOHN S. KING,

    1. Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University, Campus Box 8002, Raleigh, NC 27695, USA,
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  • FITZGERALD L. BOOKER,

    1. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Plant Science Research Unit and Department of Crop Science, North Carolina State University, 3127 Ligon Street, Raleigh, NC 27607, USA,
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  • CHRISTIAN P. GIARDINA,

    1. Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, USDA Forest Service – PSW Research Station, 60 Nowelo Street, Hilo, HI 96720, USA,
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  • H. LEE ALLEN,

    1. Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University, Campus Box 8002, Raleigh, NC 27695, USA,
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  • SHUIJIN HU

    1. Department of Plant Pathology, North Carolina State University, Campus Box 7616, Raleigh, NC 27695-7616, USA
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Lingli Liu, tel. +1 919 541 4930, fax +1 919 541 1818, e-mail: lingliliu@hotmail.com

Abstract

Elevated CO2 has been shown to stimulate plant productivity and change litter chemistry. These changes in substrate availability may then alter soil microbial processes and possibly lead to feedback effects on N availability. However, the strength of this feedback, and even its direction, remains unknown. Further, uncertainty remains whether sustained increases in net primary productivity will lead to increased long-term C storage in soil. To examine how changes in litter chemistry and productivity under elevated CO2 influence microbial activity and soil C formation, we conducted a 230-day microcosm incubation with five levels of litter addition rate that represented 0, 0.5, 1.0, 1.4 and 1.8 × litterfall rates observed in the field for aspen stand growing under control treatments at the Aspen FACE experiment in Rhinelander, WI, USA. Litter and soil samples were collected from the corresponding field control and elevated CO2 treatment after trees were exposed to elevated CO2 (560 ppm) for 7 years. We found that small decreases in litter [N] under elevated CO2 had minor effects on microbial biomass carbon, microbial biomass nitrogen and dissolved inorganic nitrogen. Increasing litter addition rates resulted in linear increase in total C and new C (C from added litter) that accumulated in whole soil as well as in the high density soil fraction (HDF), despite higher cumulative C loss by respiration. Total N retained in whole soil and in HDF also increased with litter addition rate as did accumulation of new C per unit of accumulated N. Based on our microcosm comparisons and regression models, we expected that enhanced C inputs rather than changes in litter chemistry would be the dominant factor controlling soil C levels and turnover at the current level of litter production rate (230 g C m−2 yr−1 under ambient CO2). However, our analysis also suggests that the effects of changes in biochemistry caused by elevated CO2 could become significant at a higher level of litter production rate, with a trend of decreasing total C in HDF, new C in whole soil, as well as total N in whole soil and HDF.

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