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Decadal and long-term boreal soil carbon and nitrogen sequestration rates across a variety of ecosystems

August 18, 2016

Boreal soils play a critical role in the global carbon (C) cycle; therefore, it is important to understand the mechanisms that control soil C accumulation and loss for this region. Examining C & nitrogen (N) accumulation rates over decades to centuries may provide additional understanding of the dominant mechanisms for their storage, which can be masked by seasonal and interannual variability when investigated over the short term. We examined longer-term accumulation rates, using 210Pb and 14C to date soil layers, for a wide variety of boreal ecosystems: a black spruce forest, a shrub ecosystem, a tussock grass ecosystem, a sedge-dominated ecosystem, and a rich fen. All ecosystems had similar decadal C accumulation rates, averaging 84 ± 42 gC m−2 yr−1. Long-term (century) C accumulation rates were slower than decadal rates, averaging 14 ± 5 gC m−2 yr−1 for all ecosystems except the rich fen, for which the long-term C accumulation rates was more similar to decadal rates (44 ± 5 and 76 ± 9 gC m−2 yr−1, respectively). The rich fen also had the highest long-term N accumulation rates (2.7 gN m−2 yr−1). The lowest N accumulation rate, on both a decadal and long-term basis, was found in the black spruce forest (0.2 and 1.4 gN m−2 yr−1, respectively). Our results suggest that the controls on long-term C and N cycling at the rich fen is fundamentally different from the other ecosystems, likely due to differences in the predominant drivers of nutrient cycling (oxygen availability, for C) and reduced amounts of disturbance by fire (for C and N). This result implies that most shifts in ecosystem vegetation across the boreal region, driven by either climate or succession, will not significantly impact regional C or N dynamics over years to decades. However, ecosystem transitions to or from a rich fen will promote significant shifts in soil C and N storage.