Global change belowground: impacts of elevated CO2, nitrogen, and summer drought on soil food webs and biodiversity


Correspondence: Nico Eisenhauer, tel. + 001 612 624 6709, fax + 001 612 624 5212, e-mail:


The world's ecosystems are subjected to various anthropogenic global change agents, such as enrichment of atmospheric CO2 concentrations, nitrogen (N) deposition, and changes in precipitation regimes. Despite the increasing appreciation that the consequences of impending global change can be better understood if varying agents are studied in concert, there is a paucity of multi-factor long-term studies, particularly on belowground processes. Herein, we address this gap by examining the responses of soil food webs and biodiversity to enrichment of CO2, elevated N, and summer drought in a long-term grassland study at Cedar Creek, Minnesota, USA (BioCON experiment). We use structural equation modeling (SEM), various abiotic and biotic explanatory variables, and data on soil microorganisms, protozoa, nematodes, and soil microarthropods to identify the impacts of multiple global change effects on drivers belowground. We found that long-term (13-year) changes in CO2 and N availability resulted in modest alterations of soil biotic food webs and biodiversity via several mechanisms, encompassing soil water availability, plant productivity, and – most importantly – changes in rhizodeposition. Four years of manipulation of summer drought exerted surprisingly minor effects, only detrimentally affecting belowground herbivores and ciliate protists at elevated N. Elevated CO2 increased microbial biomass and the density of ciliates, microarthropod detritivores, and gamasid mites, most likely by fueling soil food webs with labile C. Moreover, beneficial bottom-up effects of elevated CO2 compensated for detrimental elevated N effects on soil microarthropod taxa richness. In contrast, nematode taxa richness was lowest at elevated CO2 and elevated N. Thus, enrichment of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and N deposition may result in taxonomically and functionally altered, potentially simplified, soil communities. Detrimental effects of N deposition on soil biodiversity underscore recent reports on plant community simplification. This is of particular concern, as soils house a considerable fraction of global biodiversity and ecosystem functions.