Montane Meadows: A Soil Carbon Sink or Source?

Abstract

As the largest biogeochemically active terrestrial reserve of carbon (C), soils have the potential to either mitigate or amplify rates of climate change. Ecosystems with large C stocks and high rates of soil C sequestration, in particular, may have outsized impacts on regional and global C cycles. Montane meadows have large soil C stocks relative to surrounding ecosystems. However, anthropogenic disturbances in many meadows may have altered the balance of C inputs and outputs, potentially converting these soils from net C sinks to net sources of C to the atmosphere. Here, we quantified ecosystem-level C inputs and outputs to estimate the annual net soil C flux from 13 montane meadows spanning a range of conditions throughout the California Sierra Nevada. Our results suggest that meadow soils can be either large net C sinks (577.6 ± 250.5 g C m−2 y−1) or sources of C to the atmosphere (− 391.6 ± 154.2 g C m−2 y−1). Variation in the direction and magnitude of net soil C flux appears to be driven by belowground C inputs. Vegetation species and functional group composition were not associated with the direction of net C flux, but climate and watershed characteristics were. Our results demonstrate that, per unit area, montane meadows hold a greater potential for C sequestration than the surrounding forest. However, legacies of disturbance have converted some meadows to strong net C sources. Accurate quantification of ecosystem-level C fluxes is critical for the development of regional C budgets and achieving global emissions goals.

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Data Accessibility

Data are available online at https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.qbzkh18g6. Data sets include: soil C stocks, annual GHG budgets, 13C pulse-labeling results, vegetation biomass and species composition, annual net soil carbon flux calculations, and sensitivity analysis. All other data are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the many field and laboratory assistants who helped with the collection and processing of the field data. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife funded this work (P1496002, P1496004, P1496008, P1496009). B.W.S acknowledges additional support from the Bella Vista Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station.

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Correspondence to Cody C. Reed.

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CR, AM, LK, MO, SH and BS collected field data and conducted laboratory analyses; CR, BS, SH and PV conducted the pulse-labeling experiment; CR and BS conducted statistical analyses; AM, SH, BS and MD provided technical coordination among project partners; MD, BC, RH, MO, JW, SS, AM and BS obtained funding and landowner permission; CR wrote the manuscript with assistance from BS and substantial input from all authors.

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Reed, C.C., Merrill, A.G., Drew, W.M. et al. Montane Meadows: A Soil Carbon Sink or Source?. Ecosystems (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-020-00572-x

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Keywords

  • Carbon budget
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Carbon loss
  • Climate change
  • Montane meadow
  • Peatland
  • Subalpine
  • Wetland