Belowground Carbon and Nitrogen Cycling in a Loblolly Pine Forest Managed for Bioenergy Production
Minick, Kevan J
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Concern over rising atmospheric CO2 due to fossil fuel combustion has intensified research into carbon-neutral energy and fuel production. Therefore, bioenergy production has expanded during the last decade, increasing demand for forest-based bioenergy feedstocks. Millions of acres of privately and industrially owned pine plantations exist across the southeastern US, representing a vast area of land that could be utilized to produce bioenergy without significant land-use change or diversion of agricultural resources from food production. Furthermore, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) plantations offer the unique opportunity to utilize space between rows of planted trees to grow an herbaceous bioenergy crop, such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.). This novel forest management regime has the potential to provide positive environmental and economic services, but hinges in part on impacts to soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling, availability of belowground resources, and potential negative impacts of competition between pine and switchgrass on plant productivity. Three specific objectives were addressed in this study: 1) compare different bioenergy management regimes in regards to temporal dynamics of N cycling and availability following forest establishment (see Chapter 2); 2) determine the impact of loblolly pine and switchgrass intercropping on microbial N cycling processes (see Chapter 3); and 3) evaluate chemical and physical mechanisms of soil organic matter (SOM) stabilization and test their sensitivity to pine-switchgrass intercropping (see Chapter 4). The study site was located in the Lower Coastal Plain physiographic province in Lenoir County, North Carolina, USA (35-12'59'' N; 077-26'13'' W). Soils were mapped as Pantego (fine‐loamy, siliceous, semiactive, thermic Umbric Paleaquults) or Rains (fine‐loamy, siliceous, semiactive, thermic Typic Paleaquults) soil series, both of which are very poorly drained. However, previous site management in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s included installation of ditches to lower the water table and reduce saturation at the soil surface. Additionally, bedding of soil in rows was used to raise root systems of planted loblolly pine seedlings above the water table, increase soil aeration, and reduce competition. Space between bedded rows of pine trees was referred to as the interbed. Results from Chapter 2 showed that switchgrass significantly reduced interbed soil NH4 + and NO3 - concentrations by 39% and 60%, respectively, over the course of the timeframe (30 months) of this study. Surprisingly, in beds of the pine-switchgrass treatment significant increases in NO3 - concentration were measured from July - December 2011. From Chapter 3, gross N mineralization rates ranged from 0.18 - 4.7 µg N g -1 soil d-1 , while gross nitrification rates ranged from 0.02 - 0.47 µg N g-1 soil d-1 . At the 0-5 cm depth in switchgrass interbeds, gross N mineralization was reduced from April to November potentially reflecting microbial C limitations due to reduced soil C concentrations. At the 0-5 cm depth in beds of the pine-switchgrass treatment, gross N mineralization rates were elevated by 1.29 µg N iii g -1 soil d-1 in November and 1.02 µg N g-1 soil d-1 in February on average corresponding to a 305% and 193% increase, respectively. From Chapter 4, total C content in beds and interbeds ranged from 15 to 88 Mg C ha-1 and was reduced by 27% in beds of the pine-switchgrass treatment. Average C concentration for aggregate fractions was significantly lower in beds of the pine-switchgrass treatment at 0-5, 15- 30, and 30-45 cm depths, amounting to ~23%, ~28%, and ~34% reduction, respectively. Values of δ 13C for the >2000 µm aggregate size fraction at the 0-5 cm depth were diluted, corresponding to estimates of 13 - 25% of the >2000 µm C pool comprised of new pine-derived C. For SOM fractionated by density, elevated C concentrations were found in the occluded light fractions in both beds and interbeds of the pine-switchgrass treatment. Enriched δ13C in occluded light fractions led to estimates of 2.5 - 12.5% of this C fraction comprised of new switchgrass-derived C. In the free light fraction, new pine-derived C accounted for 15% and 9% of C at the 5-15 and 15-30 cm depth, respectively. Three overarching conclusions were generated from my research: 1) switchgrass grown between loblolly pine trees effectively utilized excess soil NH4 + and NO3 - when N availability was high following harvesting of a mature plantation proceeded by establishment of a second rotation of loblolly pine (see Chapter 2); 2) gross N mineralization rates were reduced under switchgrass during the growing season when soil C availability was low, but were elevated under switchgrass and adjacent loblolly pines when switchgrass was dormant and C availability was likely higher (see Chapter 3); and 3) SOM stabilized by physical or chemical mechanisms responded differently to pine-switchgrass intercropping, with losses in aggregate-stabilized C and gains in occluded, mineral-stabilized C. Furthermore, losses of aggregate C was associated with a significant reduction in total soil C in beds of the pine-switchgrass treatment. Results from 13C mass balance suggested incorporation of switchgrass-derived C into occluded light fractions of beds and interbeds. Finally, incorporation of new pine-derived C into the >2000 µm aggregate size fraction and free light fraction indicate pine inputs of particulate organic matter into these SOM fractions in beds of the pine-switchgrass treatment (see Chapter 4). I hypothesize that loblolly pines have increased root growth in beds in response to competition with switchgrass for N in the interbed, thereby alleviating seasonal microbial C limitations and stimulating microbial N cycling processes and increasing plant-available N. Overall, this research suggests that soil C and N cycling in pine plantations is altered by intercropping of pine and switchgrass. Through a mechanistic understanding of how C and N are cycled in forests and the impact of various forest management regimes on soil C and N cycling, effective management strategies can be implemented to utilize forests for intensive biomass production while limiting loss of soil C and N, and in some cases even enhancing soil C and N retention. Future research initiatives should seek to unravel the complex belowground interactions between roots of different plant species and soil microbial communities competing for limiting resources. Understanding how these interactions drive soil C storage, N cycling and availability, and forest productivity will ultimately improve resource utilization in these managed ecosystems as well as our basic understanding of how natural and managed ecosystems function.
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