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Observations of net soil exchange of CO2 in a dryland show experimental warming increases carbon losses in biocrust soils

Abstract

Many arid and semiarid ecosystems have soils covered with well-developed biological soil crust communities (biocrusts) made up of mosses, lichens, cyanobacteria, and heterotrophs living at the soil surface. These communities are a fundamental component of dryland ecosystems, and are critical to dryland carbon (C) cycling. To examine the effects of warming temperatures on soil C balance in a dryland ecosystem, we used infrared heaters to warm biocrust-dominated soils to 2 °C above control conditions at a field site on the Colorado Plateau, USA. We monitored net soil exchange (NSE) of CO2 every hour for 21 months using automated flux chambers (5 control and 5 warmed chambers), which included the CO2 fluxes of the biocrusts and the soil beneath them. We observed measurable photosynthesis in biocrust soils on 12 % of measurement days, which correlated well with precipitation events and soil wet-up. These days included several snow events, providing what we believe to be the first evidence of substantial photosynthesis underneath snow by biocrust organisms in drylands. Overall, biocrust soils in both control and warmed plots were net CO2 sources to the atmosphere, with control plots losing 62 ± 8 g C m−2 (mean ± SE) over the first year of measurement and warmed plots losing 74 ± 9 g C m−2. Between control and warmed plots, the difference in soil C loss was uncertain over the course of the entire year due to large and variable rates in spring, but on days during which soils were wet and crusts were actively photosynthesizing, biocrusts that were warmed by 2 °C had a substantially more negative C balance (i.e., biocrust soils took up less C and/or lost more C in warmed plots). Taken together, our data suggest a substantial risk of increased C loss from biocrust soils with higher future temperatures, and highlight a robust capacity to predict CO2 exchange in biocrust soils using easily measured environmental parameters.

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Acknowledgments

This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences Program, under Award Number DE-SC-0008168, as well as US Geological Survey’s Climate and Land Use and Ecosystems Mission Areas. Thanks are given to the many technicians who have and are currently working on this project, Sue Phillips and Dave Housman who directed the early setup of the site, and several anonymous reviewers whose contributions have improved the manuscript. Any trade, product, or firm name is used for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Correspondence to Anthony Darrouzet-Nardi.

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Darrouzet-Nardi, A., Reed, S.C., Grote, E.E. et al. Observations of net soil exchange of CO2 in a dryland show experimental warming increases carbon losses in biocrust soils. Biogeochemistry 126, 363–378 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-015-0163-7

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Keywords

  • Autochamber
  • Biological soil crusts
  • Castle valley
  • Utah
  • Soil respiration
  • Gap filling
  • Global climate change
  • Net soil exchange
  • NSE
  • Net ecosystem exchange
  • NEE