The Impact of Water Content on Sources of Heterotrophic Soil Respiration
McElligott, Kristin M.
Seiler, John R.
Strahm, Brian D.
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Heterotrophic respiration (RH) is a major flux of CO2 from forest ecosystems and represents a large source of uncertainty in estimating net ecosystem productivity (NEP) using regional soil respiration (RS) models. RH from leaf litter (RHL) may contribute greatly to annual RH estimates, but its contribution may be misrepresented due to the logistical and technical challenges associated with chamber-based field measurements of RHL. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the sensitivity of sources of RH (mineral soil-derived heterotrophic respiration [RHM] and leaf litter-derived heterotrophic respiration [RHL]) of a loblolly pine plantation (Pinus taeda L.) to varying soil and litter water content over the course of a dry down event. Additionally, we investigated whether fertilization influenced RHL and RHM to understand how forest nutrient management may impact forest soil carbon (C) dynamics. RHL was measured under dry conditions and at field capacity to evaluate water content controls on RHL, determine the duration of increased CO2 release following wetting, and evaluate the potential contribution to total RH. We also measured RHM inside collars that excluded plant roots and litter inputs, from field capacity until near-zero RHM rates were attained. We found that RHL was more sensitive to water content than RHM, and increased linearly with increasing litter water content (R2 = 0.89). The contribution of RHL to RH was greatest immediately following the wetting event, and decreased rapidly to near-zero rates between 3 and 10 days. RHM also had a strong relationship with soil water content (R2 = 0.62), but took between 200 and 233 days to attain near-zero RHM rates. Fertilization had no effect on RHM (p = 0.657), but significantly suppressed RHL rates after the wetting event (p < 0.009). These results demonstrate that there is great temporal variability in both CO2 released and the water content of differing sources of RH, and forest fertilization may largely impact forest floor C stocks. This variability may not be captured reliably using conventional weekly to monthly chamber-based field sampling efforts and could lead to over- or underestimation of RH. In the context of climate change, changes in the frequency and intensity of wetting and drying events will likely alter RHL and its contribution to RS. Separate consideration of RH sources and controls, along with increased field sampling frequency using chamber-based methodology under a broader range of specific environmental conditions, are likely needed to reduce variability in RH estimates and improve the accuracy of forest NEP predictions.