Researchers find climate shapes soil formation in boreal forests

December 9, 2020

By: The Working Forest Staff — Researchers from Memorial University, the University of Helsinki and other colleagues have found that climate warming is changing the way one key soil formation process is carried out in boreal forests.

“Plant litter decomposition is one of the most important processes in the natural carbon cycle,” said Dr. Lukas Kohl, a recent Ph.D. graduate from Memorial and principal author of a paper recently published in the journal Global Change Biology.

“The foliage produced by plants contains more than twice the carbon as all human carbon dioxide emissions in a given year. While most of this carbon is released back into the atmosphere during litter decomposition, some of it is incorporated into soil organic matter, thus removing it from the atmosphere for centuries and longer.”

Historically, researchers have assumed that chemical differences in plant litter, for example, between leaves from different species, are lost during decomposition, and lead to a similar organic matter composition regardless of the initial input.

In contrast, recent work has shown these chemical differences are not only preserved during decomposition, but new ones that microorganisms produce are added depending on the decomposition conditions.

The conditions controlling these microbial inputs include nitrogen availability that appears to increase with climate warming.

The chemical changes caused by these indirect effects of climate provide a plausible mechanism for maintenance of soil carbon stocks despite enhanced turnover of soil carbon with climate warming in these forests.

“In this new study, we demonstrate that such differences occur due to natural variations in climate similar to the climate change that will affect boreal forests over the upcoming decades,” said Dr. Kohl.

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