Expansion of woody vegetation in grasslands is a worldwide phenomenon with implications for C and N cycling at local, regional and global scales. Although woody encroachment is often accompanied by increased annual net primary production (ANPP) and increased inputs of litter, mesic ecosystems may become sources for C after woody encroachment because stimulation of soil CO2 efflux releases stored soil carbon. Our objective was to determine if young, sandy soils on a barrier island became a sink for C after encroachment of the nitrogen-fixing shrub Morella cerifera, or if associated stimulation of soil CO2 efflux mitigated increased litterfall. We monitored variations in litterfall in shrub thickets across a chronosequence of shrub expansion and compared those data to previous measurements of ANPP in adjacent grasslands. In the final year, we quantified standing litter C and N pools in shrub thickets and soil organic matter (SOM), soil organic carbon (SOC), soil total nitrogen (TN) and soil CO2 efflux in shrub thickets and adjacent grasslands. Heavy litterfall resulted in a dense litter layer storing an average of 809 g C m−2 and 36 g N m−2. Although soil CO2 efflux was stimulated by shrub encroachment in younger soils, soil CO2 efflux did not vary between shrub thickets and grasslands in the oldest soils and increases in CO2 efflux in shrub thickets did not offset contributions of increased litterfall to SOC. SOC was 3.6–9.8 times higher beneath shrub thickets than in grassland soils and soil TN was 2.5–7.7 times higher under shrub thickets. Accumulation rates of soil and litter C were highest in the youngest thicket at 101 g m−2 yr−1 and declined with increasing thicket age. Expansion of shrubs on barrier islands, which have low levels of soil carbon and high potential for ANPP, has the potential to significantly increase ecosystem C sequestration.
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