, Volume 87, Issue 1, pp 29–47 | Cite as

Decomposition of soil organic matter from boreal black spruce forest: environmental and chemical controls

  • Kimberly P. WicklandEmail author
  • Jason C. Neff
Synthesis and Emerging Ideas


Black spruce forests are a dominant covertype in the boreal forest region, and they inhabit landscapes that span a wide range of hydrologic and thermal conditions. These forests often have large stores of soil organic carbon. Recent increases in temperature at northern latitudes may be stimulating decomposition rates of this soil carbon. It is unclear, however, how changes in environmental conditions influence decomposition in these systems, and if substrate controls of decomposition vary with hydrologic and thermal regime. We addressed these issues by investigating the effects of temperature, moisture, and organic matter chemical characteristics on decomposition of fibric soil horizons from three black spruce forest sites. The sites varied in drainage and permafrost, and included a “Well Drained” site where permafrost was absent, and “Moderately well Drained” and “Poorly Drained” sites where permafrost was present at about 0.5 m depth. Samples collected from each site were incubated at five different moisture contents (2, 25, 50, 75, and 100% saturation) and two different temperatures (10°C and 20°C) in a full factorial design for two months. Organic matter chemistry was analyzed using pyrolysis gas chromatography-mass spectrometry prior to incubation, and after incubation on soils held at 20°C, 50% saturation. Mean cumulative mineralization, normalized to initial carbon content, ranged from 0.2% to 4.7%, and was dependent on temperature, moisture, and site. The effect of temperature on mineralization was significantly influenced by moisture content, as mineralization was greatest at 20°C and 50–75% saturation. While the relative effects of temperature and moisture were similar for all soils, mineralization rates were significantly greater for samples from the “Well Drained” site compared to the other sites. Variations in the relative abundances of polysaccharide-derivatives and compounds of undetermined source (such as toluene, phenol, 4-methyl phenol, and several unidentifiable compounds) could account for approximately 44% of the variation in mineralization across all sites under ideal temperature and moisture conditions. Based on our results, changes in temperature and moisture likely have similar, additive effects on in situ soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition across a wide range of black spruce forest systems, while variations in SOM chemistry can lead to significant differences in decomposition rates within and among forest sites.


Alaska Boreal forest Decomposition Permafrost Pyrolysis GC/MS Soil organic carbon 



We thank J. Harden for facilitating our research at pre-existing field sites (“Well Drained” and “Moderately well Drained” sites), and for assistance in establishing the “Poorly Drained” field site; Bonanza Creek LTER; J. Carrasco, D. Fernandez, and C. Stewart for valuable assistance with pyrolysis GC/MS analyses and interpretation; K. Manies for assistance with soil sampling and description; J. Moehle-Jeppson, M. Norris, D. Repert, and S. Striegl for assistance with laboratory analyses; and J. Harden, S. Grandy, A. Townsend, D. McKnight, G. Aiken, and R. Striegl for their helpful comments on initial drafts of this paper. Suggestions from three anonymous reviewers and K. Kalbitz helped to greatly improve this paper. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.


  1. Aerts R, Verhoeven JTA, Whigman DF (1999) Plant-mediated controls on nutrient cycling in temperate fens and bogs. Ecology 80(7):2170–2181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson JM (1991) The effects of climate change on decomposition processes in grassland and coniferous forests. Ecol App 1(3):326–347CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Basile A, Giordano S, Lopez-Saez JA, Cobianchi RC (1999) Antibacterial activity of pure flavenoids isolated from mosses. Phytochemistry 52:1479–1482CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Belyea LR (1996) Separating the effects of litter quality and microenvironment on decomposition rates in a patterned peatland. Oikos 77:529–539CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Berg B, Matzner E (1997) Effect of N deposition on decomposition of plant litter and soil organic matter in forest systems. Environ Rev 5:1–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Berg B (2000) Litter decomposition and organic matter turnover in northern forest soils. For Ecol Manage 133:13–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Billings WD (1987) Carbon balance of Alaskan tundra and taiga ecosystems: past, present, and future. Quatern Sci Rev 6:165–177Google Scholar
  8. Bisbee KE, Gower ST, Norman JM, Nordheim EV (2001) Environmental controls on ground cover species composition and productivity in a boreal black spruce forest. Oecologia 129:261–270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bonan GB, Shugart HH (1989) Environmental factors and ecological processes in boreal forests. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 20:1–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bracewell JM, Robertson GW, Williams BL (1980) Pyrolysis—mass spectrometry studies of humification in peat and a peaty podzol. J Anal Appl Pyrol 2:53–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bracewell JM, Haider K, Larter SR, Schulten H-R (1989) Thermal degradation relevant to structural studies of humic substances. In: Hayes MHB, MacCarthy P, Malcolm RL, Swift RS (eds) Humic substances II. John Wiley & Sons Ltd., West Sussex, EnglandGoogle Scholar
  12. Buurman P, van Bergen PF, Jongmans AG, Meijer EL, Duran B, van Lagen B (2005) Spatial and temporal variation in podzol organic matter studied by pyrolysis-gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and micromorphology. Eur J Soil Sci 56:253–270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Camill P, Lynch JA, Clark JS, Adams JB, Jordan B (2001) Changes in biomass, aboveground net primary production, and peat accumulation following permafrost thaw in the boreal peatlands of Manitoba, Canada. Ecosystems 4:461–478CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Canadian System of Soil Classification (1998) 3rd edn. Agricultural and Agri-Food Canada Publication 1646, p 187Google Scholar
  15. Carrasco JJ, Neff JC, Harden JW (2006) Modeling physical and biogeochemical controls over carbon accumulation in a boreal forest soil. J Geophys Res 111, G02004, doi: 10.1029/2005JG000087
  16. Chapin FS III, McGuire AD, Randerson J et al (2000) Arctic and boreal ecosystems of western North America as components of the climate system. Global Change Biol 6(Suppl 1):211–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Christensen TR, Jonasson S, Callaghan TV, Havstom M (1999) On the potential CO2 release from tundra soils in a changing climate. Appl Soil Ecol 11:127–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dalias P, Anderson JM, Bottner P, Coûteaux MM (2001) Temperature responses of carbon mineralization in conifer forest soils from different regional climates incubated under standard laboratory conditions. Global Change Biol 7(2):181–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Davidson EA, Janssens IA (2006) Temperature sensitivity of soil carbon decomposition and feedbacks to climate change. Nature 440, doi: 10.1038/nature04514
  20. de Alcântara FA, Buurman P, Curi N, Furtini Neto AE, van Lagen B, Meijer EL (2004) Changes in soil organic matter composition after introduction of riparian vegetation on shores of hydroelectric reservoirs (Southeast of Brazil). Soil Biol Biochem 36:1497–1508CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dioumaeva I, Trumbore S, Schuur EAG et al (2003) Decomposition of peat from upland boreal forest: Temperature dependence and sources of respired carbon. J Geophys Res 108:8222–8234CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Eriksson K-E, Blanchette R-A, Ander P (1990) Microbial and enzymatic degradation of wood and wood components. Springer, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  23. Flanagan PW, Van Cleve K (1983) Nutrient cycling in relation to decomposition and organic-matter quality in taiga ecosystems. Can J For Res 13:795–817Google Scholar
  24. Frolking S, Goulden ML, Wofsy SC et al (1996) Modeling temporal variability in the carbon balance of a spruce/moss boreal forest. Global Change Biol 2:343–366CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Frolking S, Roulet NT, Moore TR et al (2001) Modeling northern peatland decomposition and peat accumulation. Ecosystems 4:479–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Giardina CP, Ryan MG (2000) Evidence that decomposition rates of organic carbon in mineral soil do not vary with temperature. Nature 404:858–861CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gorham E (1991) Northern peatlands: Role in the carbon cycle and probable responses to climatic warming. Ecol App 1:182–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Goulden ML, Wofsy SC, Harden JW et al (1998) Sensitivity of boreal forest carbon balance to soil thaw. Science 279:214–217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Grace J, Rayment M (2000) Respiration in the balance. Nature 404:819–820CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gulledge J, Schimel JP (1998) Moisture control over atmospheric CH4 consumption and CO2 production in diverse Alaskan soils. Soil Biol Biochem 30(8/9):1127–1132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hall FG, Knapp DE, Huemmrich KF (1997) Physically based classification and satellite mapping of biophysical characteristics in the southern boreal forest. J Geophys Res 102:29,567–29,580Google Scholar
  32. Harden JW, Sundquist ET, Stallard RF, Mark RK (1992) Dynamics of soil carbon during deglaciation of the Laurentide ice sheet. Science 258:1921–1924CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Harden JW, O’Neill KP, Trumbore SE, Veldhuis H, Stocks BF (1997) Accumulation and turnover of carbon in soils of the BOREAS NSA: 2. Soil contribution to annual net C flux in a maturing spruce-moss forest (OBS NSA). J Geophys Res 102:28805–28816CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hobbie SE (1996) Temperature and plant species control over litter decomposition in Alaskan tundra. Ecol Monogr 66:503–522CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hobbie SE, Schimel JP, Trumbore SE, Randerson JR (2000) A mechanistic understanding of carbon storage and turnover in high-latitude soils. Global Change Biol 6(Suppl 1):196–210CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jarvis P, Linder S (2000) Constraints to growth of boreal forests. Nature 405:904–905CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Johnson LC, Damman AWH (1993) Decay and its regulation in Sphagnum peatlands. Adv Bryol 5:249–296Google Scholar
  38. Kalbitz K, Schmerwitz J, Schwesig D, Matzner E (2003) Biodegradation of soil-derived dissolved organic matter as related to its properties. Geoderma 113:273–291CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kätterer T, Reichstein M, Andrén O, Lomander A (1998) Temperature dependence of organic matter decomposition: A critical review using literature data analyzed with different models. Biol Fertil Soil 27:258–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Keyser P, Kirk TK, Zeikus IG (1978) Ligninolytic enzyme of Phanerochaete chrysosporium: Synthesized in the absence of lignin in response to nitrogen starvation. J Bacteriol 135:790–797 Google Scholar
  41. Keyser AR, Kimball JS, Nemani RR, Running SW (2000) Simulating the effects of climatic change on the carbon balance of North American high-latitude forests. Global Change Biol 6(Suppl 1):185–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Knorr W, Prentice IC, House JI, Holland EA (2005) Long-term sensitivity of soil carbon turnover to warming. Nature 433:298–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Leirós MC, Trasar-Cepeda C, Seoane S, Gil-Sotres F (1999) Dependence of mineralization of soil organic matter on temperature and moisture. Soil Biol Biochem 31: 327–335 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Liski J, Ilvesniemi H, Makela A, Westman CJ (1999) CO2 emissions from soil in response to climatic warming are overestimated—the decomposition of old soil organic matter is tolerant of temperature. Ambio 28(2):171–174Google Scholar
  45. Manies KL, Harden JW, Yoshikawa K, Randerson J (2001) The effect of soil drainage on fire and carbon cycling in central Alaska. In: Galloway J (ed) Studies in Alaska by the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1678:145–152Google Scholar
  46. Manies KL, Harden JW, Silva SR et al (2004) Soil data from Picea mariana stands near Delta Junction, AK of different ages and soil drainage type. U.S. Geological Survey Open File Report 2004–1271Google Scholar
  47. McGuire AD, Clein JS, Melillo JM et al (2000) Modeling carbon responses of tundra ecosystems to historical and projected climate: Sensitivity of Pan-Arctic carbon storage to temporal and spatial variation in climate. Global Change Biol 6(Suppl 1):141–159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Moore TR (1984) Litter decomposition in a subarctic spruce-lichen woodland, eastern Canada. Ecology 65(1):299–308CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Moore TR, Dalva M (1997) CO2 and CH4 exchange potentials of peat soils in aerobic and anaerobic laboratory incubations. Soil Biol Biochem 29:1157–1164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Moore TR, Roulet NT, Waddington JM (1998) Uncertainty in predicting the effect of climatic change on the carbon cycling of Canadian peatlands. Climatic Change 40:229–245CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Nadlehoffer KJ, Giblin AE, Shaver GR, Laundre JA (1991) Effects of temperature and substrate quality on element mineralization in six arctic soils. Ecology 72:242–253CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Neff JC, Hooper DU (2002) Vegetation and climate controls on potential CO2, DOC and DON production in northern latitude soils. Global Change Biol 8:1–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Nierop KGJ, van Lagen B, Buurman P (2001) Composition of plant tissues and soil organic matter in the first stages of a vegetation succession. Geoderma 100:1–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Oechel WC, Hastings SJ, Vourlitis GL et al (1993) Recent change in Arctic tundra ecosystems from a net carbon dioxide sink to a source. Nature 361:520–523CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. O’Neill KP (2000) Changes in carbon dynamics following wildfire in soils of interior Alaska. Dissertation, Duke UniversityGoogle Scholar
  56. Parton WJ, Schimel DS, Vole CV, Ojima DS (1987) Analysis of factors controlling soil organic matter levels in the Great Plains grassland. Soil Sci Soc Am J 51:1173–1179CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Plummer LN, Busenberg E (1982) The solubility of calcite, aragonite and vaterite in CO2-H2O solutions between 0 and 90°C, and an evaluation of the aqueous model for CaCO3-CO2-H2O. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 44:1011–1040CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Ponnamperuma FN (1972) The chemistry of submerged soils. Adv Agron 24:29–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Post WM, Emmanuel WR, Zinke PJ, Stangenberger AG (1982) Soil carbon pools and world life zones. Nature 289:156–159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Saiz-Jimenez C (1994a) Analytical pyrolysis of humic substances: Pitfalls, limitations, and possible solutions. Env Sci Tech 28(11):1773–1780CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Saiz-Jimenez C (1994b) Pyrolysis/methylation of soil fulvic acids: Benzecarboxylic acids revisited. Env Sci Tech 28(1):197–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Saiz-Jimenez C, de Leeuw JW (1984a) Pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry of isolated, synthetic, and degraded lignins. Org Geochem 6:417–422CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Saiz-Jimenez C, de Leeuw JW (1984b) Pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry of soil polysaccharides, soil fulvic acids, and polymaleic acids. Org Geochem 6:287–293 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Scanlon D, Moore TR (2000) CO2 production from peatland soil profiles: The influence of temperature, oxic/anoxic conditions, and substrate. Soil Sci 165:153–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Schimel JP, Gulledge JM, Clein-Curley JS et al (1999) Moisture effects on microbial activity and community structure in decomposing birch litter in the Alaskan taiga. Soil Biol Biochem 31:831–838CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Serreze MC, Walsh JE, Chapin FS III et al (2000) Observational evidence of recent change in the northern high-latitude environment. Climatic Change 46:159–207 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Skopp JM (2000) Physical properties of primary particles. In: Summer ME (ed) Handbook of soil science. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FLGoogle Scholar
  68. Stankiewicz BA, Mastalerz M, Kruge MA et al (1997) A comparative study of modern and fossil cone scales and seeds of conifers: A geochemical approach. New Phytol 135:375–393CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Stevenson FJ, Cole MA (1999) Cycles of soil: Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, micronutrients, 2nd edn. John Wiley & Sons Inc, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  70. Striegl RG, Kortelainen P, Chanton JP et al (2001) Carbon dioxide partial pressure and 13C content of north temperate and boreal lakes at spring ice melt. Limnol Oceanogr 46(4):941–945CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Trumbore SE, Chadwick OA, Amundson R (1996) Rapid exchange between soil carbon and atmospheric carbon dioxide driven by temperature change. Science 272:393–396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Turetsky MR (2003) The role of bryophytes in carbon and nitrogen cycling. The Bryologist 106(3):395–409CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Turetsky MR (2004) Decomposition and organic matter quality in continental peatlands: The ghost of permafrost past. Ecosystems 7:740–750CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Van Cleve K, Oliver L, Schlenter R et al (1983) Productivity and nutrient cycling in taiga ecosystems. Can J For Res 13:747–766Google Scholar
  75. Van Cleve K, Dyrness CT (1983) Introduction and overview of a multidisciplinary research project: The structure and function of a black spruce (Picea mariana) forest in relation to other fire-affected taiga ecosystems. Can J For Res 13:695–702Google Scholar
  76. Verhoeven JTA, Toth E (1995) Decompostion of Carex and Sphagnum litter in fens: Effects of litter quality and inhibition by living tissue homogenates. Soil Biol Biochem 27(3):271–275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wickland KP, Striegl RG, Neff JC, Sachs T (2006) Effects of permafrost melting on CO2 and CH4 exchange of a poorly drained black spruce lowland. J Geophys Res 111, G02011, doi: 10.1029/2005JG000099

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.U.S. Geological SurveyBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Geological Sciences Department & Environmental Studies ProgramUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA

Personalised recommendations