Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Decomposition of soil organic matter from boreal black spruce forest: Environmental and chemical controls

January 1, 2008

Black spruce forests are a dominant covertype in the boreal forest region, and they inhabit landscapes that span a wide range of hydrologic and thermal conditions. These forests often have large stores of soil organic carbon. Recent increases in temperature at northern latitudes may be stimulating decomposition rates of this soil carbon. It is unclear, however, how changes in environmental conditions influence decomposition in these systems, and if substrate controls of decomposition vary with hydrologic and thermal regime. We addressed these issues by investigating the effects of temperature, moisture, and organic matter chemical characteristics on decomposition of fibric soil horizons from three black spruce forest sites. The sites varied in drainage and permafrost, and included a “Well Drained” site where permafrost was absent, and “Moderately well Drained” and “Poorly Drained” sites where permafrost was present at about 0.5 m depth. Samples collected from each site were incubated at five different moisture contents (2, 25, 50, 75, and 100% saturation) and two different temperatures (10°C and 20°C) in a full factorial design for two months. Organic matter chemistry was analyzed using pyrolysis gas chromatography-mass spectrometry prior to incubation, and after incubation on soils held at 20°C, 50% saturation. Mean cumulative mineralization, normalized to initial carbon content, ranged from 0.2% to 4.7%, and was dependent on temperature, moisture, and site. The effect of temperature on mineralization was significantly influenced by moisture content, as mineralization was greatest at 20°C and 50–75% saturation. While the relative effects of temperature and moisture were similar for all soils, mineralization rates were significantly greater for samples from the “Well Drained” site compared to the other sites. Variations in the relative abundances of polysaccharide-derivatives and compounds of undetermined source (such as toluene, phenol, 4-methyl phenol, and several unidentifiable compounds) could account for approximately 44% of the variation in mineralization across all sites under ideal temperature and moisture conditions. Based on our results, changes in temperature and moisture likely have similar, additive effects on in situ soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition across a wide range of black spruce forest systems, while variations in SOM chemistry can lead to significant differences in decomposition rates within and among forest sites.

Publication Year 2008
Title Decomposition of soil organic matter from boreal black spruce forest: Environmental and chemical controls
DOI 10.1007/s10533-007-9166-3
Authors K.P. Wickland, J. C. Neff
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Biogeochemistry
Index ID 70033626
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Toxic Substances Hydrology Program