, Volume 242, Issue 1, pp 163-170

A synthesis: The role of nutrients as constraints on carbon balances in boreal and arctic regions

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Abstract

As in many ecosystems, carbon (C) cycling in arctic and boreal regions is tightly linked to the cycling of nutrients: nutrients (particularly nitrogen) are mineralized through the process of organic matter decomposition (C mineralization), and nutrient availability strongly constrains ecosystem C gain through primary production. This link between C and nutrient cycles has implications for how northern systems will respond to future climate warming and whether feedbacks to rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 from these regions will be positive or negative. Warming is expected to cause a substantial release of C to the atmosphere because of increased decomposition of the large amounts of organic C present in high-latitude soils (a positive feedback to climate warming). However, increased nutrient mineralization associated with this decomposition is expected to stimulate primary production and ecosystem C gain, offsetting or even exceeding C lost through decomposition (a negative feedback to climate warming). Increased primary production with warming is consistent with results of numerous experiments showing increased plant growth with nutrient enrichment. Here we examine key assumptions behind this scenario: (1) temperature is a primary control of decomposition in northern regions, (2) increased decomposition and associated nutrient release are tightly coupled to plant nutrient uptake, and (3) short-term manipulations of temperature and nutrient availability accurately predict long-term responses to climate change.