Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 289–294
The decomposition of plant litter is one of the most important ecosystem processes in the biosphere and is particularly sensitive to climate warming. Aquatic ecosystems are well suited to studying warming effects on decomposition because the otherwise confounding influence of moisture is constant. By using a latitudinal temperature gradient in an unprecedented global experiment in streams, we found that climate warming will likely hasten microbial litter decomposition and produce an equivalent decline in detritivore-mediated decomposition rates. As a result, overall decomposition rates should remain unchanged. Nevertheless, the process would be profoundly altered, because the shift in importance from detritivores to microbes in warm climates would likely increase CO2 production and decrease the generation and sequestration of recalcitrant organic particles. In view of recent estimates showing that inland waters are a significant component of the global carbon cycle, this implies consequences for global biogeochemistry and a possible positive climate feedback.