Anthropogenic N Deposition Increases Soil C Storage by Decreasing the Extent of Litter Decay: Analysis of Field Observations with an Ecosystem Model

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Recent meta-analyses of experimental studies simulating increased anthropogenic nitrogen (N) deposition in forests reveal greater soil carbon (C) storage under elevated levels of atmospheric N deposition. However, these effects have not yet been included in ecosystem-scale models of soil C and N cycling and it is unclear whether increased soil C storage results from slower decomposition rates or a reduced extent of decomposition (for example, an increase in the amount of litter entering slowly decaying humus pools). To test these alternatives, we conducted a meta-analysis of litter decomposition data. We then used the results from our meta-analysis to model C and N cycling in four sugar maple forests in Michigan using an ecosystem process model (TRACE). We compared model results testing our alternative hypotheses to field data on soil C storage from a 17-year N deposition experiment. Using data from published litter decomposition studies in forests, we determined that, on average, exogenous N inputs decreased lignin decomposition rates by 30% and increased cellulose decomposition by 9%. In the same set of litter decomposition studies increased exogenous N availability increased the amount of litter entering slowly decaying humus pools in a manner significantly related to the lignocellulose index of decaying litter. Incorporating changes to decomposition rates in TRACE did not accurately reproduce greater soil C storage observed in our field study with experimentally elevated N deposition. However, when changes in the extent of decomposition were incorporated in TRACE, the model produced increased soil C storage by increasing the amount of litter entering the humus pool and accurately represented C storage in plant and soil pools under experimental N deposition. Our modeling results and meta-analysis indicate that the extent of litter decay as humus is formed, rather than slower rates of litter decay, is likely responsible for the accumulation of organic matter, and hence soil C storage, under experimental N deposition. This effect should be incorporated in regional to global-scale models simulating the C balance of forest ecosystems in regions receiving elevated N deposition. © 2012 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.

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