Dynamic, Intermediate Soil Carbon Pools May Drive Future Responsiveness to Environmental Change

Susan E. Crow and Carlos A. Sierra

Journal of Environmental Quality, 47, 607-616 , doi:10.2134/jeq2017.07.0280, 2018


Accurately capturing dynamic soil response to disturbance effects in agroecosystem models remains elusive, thereby limiting projections of climate change mitigation potential. Perennial grasses cultivated in zero-tillage management systems hold promise as sustainable agroecosystems. High-yielding tropical C4 grasses often have extensive rooting systems, and the belowground processes of root turnover, aggregate formation, and mineral stabilization drove rapid C accumulation after cultivation in a recent study. We sought (i) to understand and constrain the size and responsiveness of dynamic, intermediate-cycling C pools contributing to the observed C accrual rates, and (ii) to simulate C stocks over time under the disturbance of elevated temperature using soil incubation at multiple temperatures and physical fractionation via density and sonication. Three-pool transfer modeling of soil incubations revealed small pools of readily available (i.e., days to months) microbial substrate that were responsive to temperature, time since cultivation, and inputs. Larger, kinetically slow-cycling pools were more indicative of long-term (i.e., years to decades) changes in C stock and strongly connected to measured changes in physical fractions. Combining the sensitivity of readily available microbial substrate with three-pool transfer modeling of the physical fractions over time since cultivation revealed that dynamic transfers of inputs occurred between the free organic and aggregate-protected fractions, and from these fractions to the mineral-associated dense fraction. Under 5°C temperature elevation, increased transfer rates outweighed elevated decomposition losses to sustain soil C accrual into the future. To effectively plan managed landscapes and monitor sustainable agroecosystems for climate change mitigation, tools must incorporate the complexity of soil response to change.

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For additional information, contact: Carlos A. Sierra

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