Soil Warming and Carbon-Cycle Feedbacks to the Climate System

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Science  13 Dec 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5601, pp. 2173-2176
DOI: 10.1126/science.1074153

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In a decade-long soil warming experiment in a mid-latitude hardwood forest, we documented changes in soil carbon and nitrogen cycling in order to investigate the consequences of these changes for the climate system. Here we show that whereas soil warming accelerates soil organic matter decay and carbon dioxide fluxes to the atmosphere, this response is small and short-lived for a mid-latitude forest, because of the limited size of the labile soil carbon pool. We also show that warming increases the availability of mineral nitrogen to plants. Because plant growth in many mid-latitude forests is nitrogen-limited, warming has the potential to indirectly stimulate enough carbon storage in plants to at least compensate for the carbon losses from soils. Our results challenge assumptions made in some climate models that lead to projections of large long-term releases of soil carbon in response to warming of forest ecosystems.

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