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Decomposition of organic substrates at eroding vs. depositional landform positions

Abstract

Introduction

Proper understanding of how rate of OM decomposition varies across a given watershed is important to determine the potential of soil erosion to induce terrestrial carbon (C) sequestration. However, as of yet, our understanding of the spatial variability of rate of organic matter (OM) decomposition (k) across a watershed is incomplete, at best.

Aim

The objective of this study is to determine how rates of organic substrate decomposition vary on the surface and in soil profiles of eroding vs. depositional landform positions.

Methods

To determine rate of organic substrate decomposition in eroding vs. depositional landform positions, a field litterbag decomposition study was conducted in Tennessee Valley, Northern California using in situ foliage (from grasses and a shrub) and two standard substrates (filter paper and birch tongue depressors, that served as proxies for OM that is relatively easier vs. harder to breakdown during microbial decomposition). We conducted the experiment at 3–4 depths at each landform position.

Results

The effect of erosional transport (surface to surface transfer of topsoil and associated SOM from eroding to depositional landform positions) and burial (after deposition of eroded SOM by successive erosional events) on decomposition rate of eroded SOM was different depending on the nature of eroding and depositional landform positions considered. The k of organic substrates at 25 cm soil depth in the depositional positions was up to 2 orders of magnitude higher than on the surface of the eroding positions. Results of this litterbag decomposition study suggest that transport of SOM from topsoil of eroding positions to the surface of depositional positions can reduce its k; but burial of eroded SOM in soil profiles at the depositional positions can lead to increasing k.

Conclusion

Because erosion-induced C sequestration is a function of changes in rate of OM decomposition and input post-compared to pre-erosion, our findings suggest that higher rates of plant productivity in eroding watersheds is needed to create and maintain a C sink in such eroding watersheds.

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Acknowledgment

I thank Margaret S. Torn, John Harte, and Jennifer W. Harden for their help during the field and lab work phases and comments on earlier versions of the manuscript; Mark Harmon for his advice regarding sample processing and for providing me with his spreadsheet for the double-exponential decay model; Daniela Cusack, Garrison Sposito, James Kirchner, the editor, and two antonymous reviewers for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript; Daniel Keck for help in the laboratory; and Laurie Koteen and Jonathan Sanderman for assistance in plant identification. This project was supported by National Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2003-35107-13601 from the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service;a National Research Initiative Competitive Grant No. 2007-35107-17893 from the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service; and faculty startup funds from the University of California, Merced.

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Correspondence to Asmeret Asefaw Berhe.

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Responsible Editor: Zucong Cai.

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Berhe, A.A. Decomposition of organic substrates at eroding vs. depositional landform positions. Plant Soil 350, 261–280 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-011-0902-z

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Keywords

  • Carbon sequestration
  • Litterbags
  • Deep vs. near-surface decomposition
  • Toposequence