, Volume 101, Issue 1, pp 133–149

Litter decomposition: what controls it and how can we alter it to sequester more carbon in forest soils?


DOI: 10.1007/s10533-010-9439-0

Cite this article as:
Prescott, C.E. Biogeochemistry (2010) 101: 133. doi:10.1007/s10533-010-9439-0


Key recent developments in litter decomposition research are reviewed. Long-term inter-site experiments indicate that temperature and moisture influence early rates of litter decomposition primarily by determining the plants present, suggesting that climate change effects will be small unless they alter the plant forms present. Thresholds may exist at which single factors control decay rate. Litter decomposes faster where the litter type naturally occurs. Elevated CO2 concentrations have little effect on litter decomposition rates. Plant tissues are not decay-resistant; it is microbial and biochemical transformations of materials into novel recalcitrant compounds rather than selective preservation of recalcitrant compounds that creates stable organic matter. Altering single characteristics of litter will not substantially alter decomposition rates. Nitrogen addition frequently leads to greater stabilization into humus through a combination of chemical reactions and enzyme inhibition. To sequester more C in soil, we need to consider not how to slow decomposition, but rather how to divert more litter into humus through microbial and chemical reactions rather than allowing it to decompose. The optimal strategy is to have litter transformed into humic substances and then chemically or physically protected in mineral soil. Adding N through fertilization and N-fixing plants is a feasible means of stimulating humification.


Litter decompositionHumusSoil organic matterForest managementLitter chemistryLitter qualityCarbon sequestrationThreshold analysisPlant functional trait analysisHumificationNitrogen fertilizationTree species effects

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of ForestryUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada