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Keywords:

  • carbon sequestration;
  • climate change;
  • drought;
  • Fagus sylvatica;
  • fine roots;
  • fast carbon pools

Abstract

Temperate forests have recently been identified as being continuing sinks for carbon even in their mature and senescent stages. However, modeling exercises indicate that a warmer and drier climate as predicted for parts of Central Europe may substantially alter the source/sink function of these economically important ecosystems. In a transect study with 14 mature European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) forests growing on uniform geological substrate, we analyzed the influence of a large reduction of annual precipitation (970–520 mm yr−1) on the carbon stocks in fast and slow pools, independent of the well-known aging effect. We investigated the C storage in the organic L, F, H layers, the mineral soil to 100 cm, and in the biomass (stem, leaves, fine roots), and analyzed the dependence of these pools on precipitation. Soil organic carbon decreased by about 25% from stands with > 900 mm yr−1 to those with < 600 mm yr−1; while the carbon storage in beech stems slightly increased. Reduced precipitation affected the biomass C pool in particular in the fine root fraction but much less in the leaf biomass and stem fractions. Fine root turnover increased with a precipitation reduction, even though stand fine root biomass and SOC in the organic L, F, and H layers decreased. According to regression analyses, the C storage in the organic layers was mainly controlled by the size of the fine root C pool suggesting an important role of fine root turnover for the C transfer from tree biomass to the SOC pool. We conclude that the long-term consequence of a substantial precipitation decrease would be a reduction of the mineral soil and organic layer SOC pools, mainly due to higher decomposition rates. This could turn temperate beech forests into significant carbon sources instead of sinks under global warming.