Litter decomposition is moderated by scale-dependent microenvironmental variation in tundra ecosystems

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Elise Gallois , Isla H. Myers-Smith , Gergana N. Daskalova, Jeff Kerby, Haydn J.D. Thomas, Andrew M. Cunliffe


1. Tundra soils are one of the world’s largest organic carbon stores, yet this carbon is vulnerable to accelerated decomposition as climate warming progresses. We currently know very little about landscape-scale controls of litter decomposition in tundra ecosystems, which hinders our understanding of the global carbon cycle.
2. Here, we examined how local-scale topography, surface air temperature, soil moisture and permafrost conditions influenced litter decomposition rates across a heterogeneous tundra landscape on Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island, Yukon, Canada.
3. We used the Tea Bag Index protocol to derive decomposition metrics, which we then compared across environmental gradients, including thermal sum surface temperature data derived from fine-resolution microclimate data modelled from drone derived topographic data.
4. We found greater green tea litter mass loss and faster decomposition rates in wetter and warmer areas within the landscape, and to a lesser extent in areas with deeper permafrost active layer thickness.
5. Spatially heterogeneous belowground conditions (soil moisture and active layer depth) explained variation in decomposition metrics at the landscape-scale (> 10 m) better than surface temperature.
6. Surprisingly, there was no strong control of elevation or slope of litter decomposition. We also found higher decomposition rates on North-facing relative to South-facing aspects at microsites that were wetter rather than warmer.
7. Synthesis: Our results show that there is scale-dependency in the environmental controls of tundra litter decomposition with moisture playing a greater role than microclimate at local “plot” scales. Our findings highlight the importance and complexity of microenvironmental controls on litter decomposition in estimates of carbon cycling in a rapidly warming tundra biome.



Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Life Sciences, Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology


Carbon cycling, climate change, decomposition, ecosystem change, Microclimate


Published: 2022-04-30 23:48

Last Updated: 2022-05-03 09:28

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