Soil Respiration and Decomposition Dynamics of Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda L.) Plantations in the Virginia Piedmont
Forests of the southeastern U.S. play an important role in meeting the increasing demand for forest products, and represent an important carbon (C) sink that can be managed as a potential tool for mitigating atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global climate change. However, realizing this potential depends on full accounting of the ecosystem carbon (C) budget. The separate evaluation of root-derived, autotrophic (RA) and microbially-derived heterotrophic (RH) soil respiration in response to management and climate change is important, as environmental and ecological factors often differentially affect these components, and RH can be weighed against net primary productivity (NPP) to estimate the C sink or source status of forest ecosystems. The objective of this research was to improve the quantitative and mechanistic understanding of soil respiratory fluxes in managed loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) plantations of the southeastern U.S. To achieve this overall objective, three studies were implemented to: 1) estimate the proportion and seasonality of RH:RS in four stand age classes, and identify relationships between RH:RS and stand characteristics 2) evaluate the effects of forest nutrient management and throughfall reduction on factors that influence RH and decomposition dynamics, including litter quality, microbial biomass, and enzyme activity and 3) evaluate the sensitivity of sources of RH (mineral soil-derived heterotrophic respiration; RHM, and leaf litter-derived heterotrophic respiration; RHL) to varying soil and litter water content over the course of a dry down event, and assess whether fertilization influences RH. Stand age and measurement season each had a significant effect on RH:RS (P < 0.001), but there were no interactive effects (P = 0.202). Mean RH:RS during the 12-month study declined with stand age, and were 0.82, 0.73, 0.59, and 0.50 for 3-year-old, 9-year-old, 18- year-old, and 25-year-old stands, respectively. Across all age classes, the winter season had the highest mean RH:RS of 0.85 while summer had the lowest of 0.55. Additionally, there were highly significant (P < 0.001) and strong (r > 0.5) correlations between RH:RS and peak LAI, stem volume, and understory biomass. Fertilization improved litter quality by significantly decreasing lignin:N and lignin:P ratios, caused a shift in extracellular enzyme activity from mineral soil N- and P-acquiring enzyme activity to litter C-acquiring enzyme activity, and increased microbial biomass pools. Throughfall reduction decreased litter quality by increasing lignin:N and lignin:P, but also increased C-acquiring enzyme activity. 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 between three – 10 days. RHM also had a strong relationship with soil water content (R2 = 0.62), but took between 200 – 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). This research provides estimates of RH:RS in managed loblolly pine systems that can be used to improve regional ecosystem C modeling efforts, and demonstrates the need to consider the impact of stand age and seasonal patterns to identify the point at which plantations switch from functioning as C sources to C sinks. Additionally, it demonstrates that the controls over RH are dynamic and influenced in the short-term by fertilization and changed precipitation regimes, with the greatest impact on properties affecting litter RH compared to mineral soil. Future research should work to improve the mechanistic understanding of the seasonal and spatial variability of RH and related controlling biotic and abiotic parameters to remedy the variability in existing RS and ecosystem C models. Understanding how management and climate change may impact factors that control RH will ultimately improve our understanding of what drives changes in forest C fluxes.