Seasonal dynamics of leaf- and root-derived C in arctic tundra mesocosms

Document Type


Publication Date



We investigated contributions of leaf litter, root litter and root-derived organic material to tundra soil carbon (C) storage and transformations. 14C-labeled materials were incubated for 32 weeks in moist tussock tundra soil cores under controlled climate conditions in growth chambers, which simulated arctic fall, winter, spring and summer temperatures and photoperiods. In addition, we tested whether the presence of living plants altered litter and soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition by planting shoots of the sedge Eriophorum vaginatum in half of the cores. Our results suggest that root litter accounted for the greatest C input and storage in these tundra soils, while leaf litter was rapidly decomposed and much of the C lost to respiration. We observed transformations of 14C between fractions even when total C appeared unchanged, allowing us to elucidate sources and sinks of C used by soil microorganisms. Initial sources of C included both water soluble (WS) and acid-soluble (AS) fractions, primarily comprised of carbohydrates and cellulose, respectively. The acid-insoluble (AIS) fraction appeared to be a sink for C when conditions were favorable for plant growth. However, decreases in 14C activity from the AIS fraction between the fall and spring harvests in all treatments indicated that microorganisms consumed recalcitrant C compounds when soil temperatures were below 0°C. In planted leaf litter cores and in both planted and unplanted SOM cores, the greatest amounts of 14C at the end of the experiment were found in the AIS fraction, suggesting a high rate of humification or accumulation of decay-resistant plant tissues. In unplanted leaf litter cores and planted and unplanted root litter cores most of the 14C remaining at the end of the experiment was in the AS fraction suggesting less extensive humification of leaf and root detritus. Overall, the presence of living plants stimulated decomposition of leaf litter by creating favorable conditions for microbial activity at the soil surface. In contrast, plants appeared to inhibit decomposition of root litter and SOM, perhaps because of microbial preferences for newer, more labile inputs from live roots. © 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Publication Title

Soil Biology and Biochemistry