, Volume 112, Issue 1–3, pp 59–69 | Cite as

Control of soil pH on turnover of belowground organic matter in subalpine grassland

  • Jens Leifeld
  • Seraina Bassin
  • Franz Conen
  • Irka Hajdas
  • Markus Egli
  • Jürg Fuhrer


Grasslands store substantial amounts of carbon in the form of organic matter in soil and roots. At high latitudes and elevation, turnover of these materials is slow due to various interacting biotic and abiotic constraints. Reliable estimates on the future of belowground carbon storage in cold grassland soils thus require quantitative understanding of these factors. We studied carbon turnover of roots, labile coarse particulate organic matter (cPOM) and older non-cPOM along a natural pH gradient (3.9–5.9) in a subalpine grassland by utilizing soil fractionation and radiocarbon dating. Soil carbon stocks and root biomass, turnover, and decomposability did not scale with soil pH whereas mean residence times of both soil organic matter fractions significantly increased with declining pH. The effect was twice as strong for non-cPOM, which was also stronger enriched in 15N at low pH. Considering roots as important precursors for cPOM, the weaker soil pH effect on cPOM turnover may have been driven by comparably high root pH values. At pH < 5, long non-cPOM mean residence times were probably related to pH dependent changes in substrate availability. Differences in turnover along the pH gradient were not reflected in soil carbon stocks because aboveground productivity was lower under acidic conditions and, in turn, higher inputs from aboveground plant residues compensated for faster soil carbon turnover at less acidic pH. In summary, the study provides evidence for a strong and differential regulatory role of pH on the turnover of soil organic matter that needs consideration in studies aiming to quantify effects of changing environmental conditions on belowground carbon storage.


Radiocarbon Soil fractionation Roots XRD POM Turnover 15



We thank Robin Giger for soil fractionation and elemental analysis and Susanne Müller for assisting in root incubation experiments. Karen Budge helped to improve the language. Diane Bürge-Weirich and Johanna Rauwolf performed XRF measurements and Christian Mavris helped with XRD. We thank two anonymous reviewers and Phil Sollins for constructive comments on the manuscript.

Supplementary material

10533_2011_9689_MOESM1_ESM.doc (51 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 51 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jens Leifeld
    • 1
  • Seraina Bassin
    • 1
  • Franz Conen
    • 2
  • Irka Hajdas
    • 3
  • Markus Egli
    • 4
  • Jürg Fuhrer
    • 1
  1. 1.Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon Research Station ART, Air Pollution/Climate GroupZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Institute for Environmental Geosciences, University of BaselBaselSwitzerland
  3. 3.Laboratory of Ion Beam Physics ETHZurichSwitzerland
  4. 4.Department of GeographyUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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