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Soil carbon storage, respiration potential, and organic matter quality across an age and climate gradient in southwestern Greenland

Abstract

Geological factors influence biological cycling of organic carbon in soils but are not well represented in our understanding of Arctic carbon dynamics. Landscape age, for instance, directly affects quantity and quality of soil carbon, which are two strong controls of the temperature sensitivity of soil organic matter. We investigated soil carbon storage, respiration potential, and organic matter quality for microbial decomposition across a climate and landscape age gradient in southwest Greenland that deglaciated during the Holocene. We measured soil respiration during a 370-day laboratory incubations of active layer soils collected from four study areas across this gradient (ages 1.8 × 102, 6.8 × 103, and 1.0 × 104, coinciding with a climate gradient from drier inland to wetter coastal terrain) and used a soil respiration model comparison approach to assess the substrate quality of stored organic matter for microbial decomposers. Soils store more than three times greater organic carbon at the 10,000-year-old, maritime climate study areas than the 180-year-old, continental climate study areas. Respiration rates were highest in the surface soils of the coastal areas. Model comparisons reveal important heterogeneity in the quality of organic matter for microbial decomposition between areas: coastal soils were best modeled by both one- and two-pooled models, and inland soils were best represented by one-pooled respiration models. Together, the measures of carbon quality (C:N, CO2 production, and model parameters estimating initial CO2 production rates from different organic matter pools) show that shallow soils at the southern coastal area, Kobbefjord, had the highest respiration rates from the recalcitrant carbon pool. This study reveals differences in carbon storage and turnover associated with landscape age and climate factors in western Greenland. When applied to thermodynamic theory, which predicts that temperature sensitivity increases with carbon recalcitrance, our findings suggest that carbon stored in coastal soils may be more sensitive to climate warming than inland soils.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Courtney Hammond-Wagner and Phoebe Racine for assistance in the field and laboratory. Angela Spickard and Paul Zietz at Dartmouth provided laboratory support. We are grateful to Josephine Nymand, Louise Holm Christensen, and Stine Hojlund Pedersen for guidance and hospitality at Nuuk Basic Field Station in Kobbefjord; CH2M Hill Polar Services for logistical support in Kangerlussuaq; Lauren Culler for providing comments on the manuscript. This research was supported by a grant from The Explorers Club Exploration Fund to Julia Bradley-Cook and a National Science Foundation IGERT Grant (Award No.: 0801490) to Ross Virginia. Additional support was provided by the Institute of Arctic Studies, Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth.

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Correspondence to Julia I. Bradley-Cook.

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Bradley-Cook, J.I., Virginia, R.A. Soil carbon storage, respiration potential, and organic matter quality across an age and climate gradient in southwestern Greenland. Polar Biol 39, 1283–1295 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-015-1853-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-015-1853-2

Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Soil organic carbon
  • Decomposition
  • Organic matter quality
  • Landscape age
  • Arctic