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Temperature sensitivity of soil respiration in a low-latitude forest ecosystem varies by season and habitat but is unaffected by experimental warming

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Abstract

Experimental warming of forest ecosystems typically stimulates soil respiration (CO2 efflux), but most warming experiments have been conducted in northern latitudes (> 40°N) with relatively young soils. We quantified the influence of experimental warming on soil respiration (RT) in two adjacent forest habitats—a mature, closed canopy forest and a gap where trees were manually removed— on highly-weathered Ultisols of the southeastern U.S. (33°N). Using temperature variation, both natural and induced by experimental warming, we also quantified the temperature sensitivity of RT, defined as the activation energy, EA in the Arrhenius equation. Experimental warming (either + 3 °C or + 5 °C above ambient) did not significantly increase soil respiration rate or cumulative CO2 loss over the 3 years of the experiment, and did not influence the temperature sensitivity of soil respiration, once the influence of natural temperature variation was taken into consideration. Despite the absence of an experimental warming effect, we observed that EA varied on monthly time scales, and varied differently in each habitat. Soil moisture and habitat also influenced RT, but the effects were not consistent, and varied by month. Our results suggest that although RT does depend on temperature, the sensitivity of RT to temperature variation is influenced primarily by factors like microclimate and plant phenology that can change on relatively short (< monthly) time scales. Thus, using the temperature sensitivity of RT to predict future CO2 losses due to warming is only reasonable if monthly variation in EA is incorporated into models for lower-latitude subtropical ecosystems with highly weathered soils, such as those in this study. Finally, our results suggest that higher temperatures may not enhance RT in highly-weathered, C-poor soils to the extent that has been reported in prior studies of high-latitude soils, which may constrain ecosystem-atmosphere carbon exchanges and feedbacks to the climate system.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported in part by funding from NSF DEB-1242013, and support from the University of Georgia’s Office of the Vice-President for Research (OVPR). Analytical work was done in the UGA Odum School of Ecology Analytical Laboratory and Georgia Institute of Technology, Biochemistry Department. We thank the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources for assistance with establishing and maintaining the project in Whitehall Forest.

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Correspondence to Megan B. Machmuller.

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Machmuller, M.B., Ballantyne, F., Markewitz, D. et al. Temperature sensitivity of soil respiration in a low-latitude forest ecosystem varies by season and habitat but is unaffected by experimental warming. Biogeochemistry 141, 63–73 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-018-0501-7

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