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Effect of the Relative Abundance of Conifers Versus Hardwoods on Soil δ13C Enrichment with Soil Depth in Eastern Canadian forests

Abstract

Soils are a major component of the global C cycle, and considerable effort has been dedicated to improve our understanding of factors controlling soil organic C (SOC) turnover and stabilization in the last decades. Carbon stable isotopes are useful in this respect as they represent an integrative indicator of SOC biogeochemical processing. In the present study, C concentration and δ13C were measured in soil horizons of 21 forest sites located at the transition zone between the hardwood and the conifer forest in Québec, Canada, and related to 13 biophysical variables to identify the main drivers of SOC storage and turnover. Carbon concentrations in the forest floor (FF) and the B- and C-horizons were, respectively, strongly correlated with percentage of clay (Pclay), the mean annual precipitation: potential evapotranspiration ratio (MAP:PET), and percentage of hardwoods (Phwd). In FF, δ13C was poorly correlated with the studied variables, whereas in mineral horizons, it was significantly correlated with mean annual air temperature (MAAT) and the percentage of conifers (Pc) and Pclay. Across the studied area, δ13C increased on average by 2.0‰ from the FF to the C-horizon. The isotopic enrichment with soil depth (β) was strongly negatively correlated with Pc, which explained 55% of its variability among sites. This suggests that the vegetation type is an important driver of soil C long-term turnover rate in forest ecosystems. Overall, our data suggest that hardwood forest expansion in response to climate change might reduce the stability and the storage of SOC in the future.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by Environment Canada’s Acid Rain program, CARA, and the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec (MFFP). We are also thankful to the MFFP laboratory for soil analysis.

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Correspondence to D. Houle.

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CM contributed in study design, analyzed data, and wrote the paper. DH conceived of the study and contributed in data analysis and in writing the paper. CG contributed to research and manuscript development.

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Marty, C., Houle, D. & Gagnon, C. Effect of the Relative Abundance of Conifers Versus Hardwoods on Soil δ13C Enrichment with Soil Depth in Eastern Canadian forests. Ecosystems 18, 629–642 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-015-9852-2

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Keywords

  • forest soils
  • δ13C
  • soil organic carbon
  • carbon turnover time
  • isotopic enrichment factor
  • boreal forests