Study explores temperature sensitivity of soil organic matter decomposition in tropical forests influence on future climate

Andrew T. Nottingham, Jeanette Whitaker, Benjamin L. Turner, Norma Salinas, Michael Zimmermann, Yadvinder Malhi and Patrick Meir (2015) Climate Warming and Soil Carbon in Tropical Forests: Insights from an Elevation Gradient in the Peruvian Andes BioScience, 69, 906-921 doi: 10.1093/biosci/biv109

Abstract

The temperature sensitivity of soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition in tropical forests will influence future climate. Studies of a 3.5-kilometer elevation gradient in the Peruvian Andes, including short-term translocation experiments and the examination of the long-term adaptation of biota to local thermal and edaphic conditions, have revealed several factors that may regulate this sensitivity. Collectively this work suggests that, in the absence of a moisture constraint, the temperature sensitivity of decomposition is regulated by the chemical composition of plant debris (litter) and both the physical and chemical composition of preexisting SOM: higher temperature sensitivities are found in litter or SOM that is more chemically complex and in SOM that is less occluded within aggregates. In addition, the temperature sensitivity of SOM in tropical montane forests may be larger than previously recognized because of the presence of “cold-adapted” and nitrogen-limited microbial decomposers and the possible future alterations in plant and microbial communities associated with warming. Studies along elevation transects, such as those reviewed here, can reveal factors that will regulate the temperature sensitivity of SOM. They can also complement and guide in situ soil-warming experiments, which will be needed to understand how this vulnerability to temperature may be mediated by altered plant productivity under future climatic change.