Interactions between Carbon and Nitrogen Mineralization and Soil Organic Matter Chemistry in Arctic Tundra Soils
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We used long-term laboratory incubations and chemical fractionation to characterize the mineralization dynamics of organic soils from tussock, shrub, and wet meadow tundra communities, to determine the relationship between soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition and chemistry, and to quantify the relative proportions of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in tundra SOM that are biologically available for decomposition. In all soils but shrub, we found little decline in respiration rates over 1 year, although soils respired approximately a tenth to a third of total soil C. The lack of decline in respiration rates despite large C losses indicates that the quantity of organic matter available was not controlling respiration and thus suggests that something else was limiting microbial activity. To determine the nature of the respired C, we analyzed soil chemistry before and after the incubation using a peat fractionation scheme. Despite the large losses of soil C, SOM chemistry was relatively unchanged after the incubation. The decomposition dynamics we observed suggest that tundra SOM, which is largely plant detritus, fits within existing concepts of the litter decay continuum. The lack of changes in organic matter chemistry indicates that this material had already decomposed to the point where the breakdown of labile constituents was tied to lignin decomposition. N mineralization was correlated with C mineralization in our study, but shrub soil mineralized more and tussock soil less N than would have been predicted by this correlation. Our results suggest that a large proportion of tundra SOM is potentially mineralizable, despite the fact that decomposition was dependent on lignin breakdown, and that the historical accumulation of organic matter in tundra soils is the result of field conditions unfavorable to decomposition and not the result of fundamental chemical limitations to decomposition. Our study also suggests that the anticipated increases in shrub dominance may substantially alter the dynamics of SOM decomposition in the tundra.
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