Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Wildland Resources


Helga Van Miegroet


Forest soils store as much carbon (C) as the vegetation that grows on them, and the carbon in soil is more stable than the C in biomass. Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) is the most widespread tree species in North America, and aspen forests in the Western US have been found to store more soil organic carbon (SOC) in the mineral soil than nearby conifers. Fire exclusion and grazing often promote the succession of aspen to conifer dominated forests due to their effect on aspen regeneration. So far the factors driving the differential SOC accumulation, and the effects of the vegetation shift on SOC pools, are not well understood.

In this dissertation I aimed to evaluate how various forest vegetation characteristics – tree type, detritus fluxes, detritus chemistry – affect SOC pools and stability from a global to a molecular level using two contrasting forest types – aspen and conifer. A meta-analysis showed that, while conifer forests worldwide had higher C pools in the forest floor, this difference did not translate into the mineral soil, suggesting that the mechanisms that control SOC storage differ between both soil compartments. Above- and belowground detritus input fluxes were similar between aspen and conifer forests, and did not explain the higher SOC pools under aspen. A sorption study revealed that the more labile aspen foliage dissolved organic carbon (DOC) was more effectively retained in soil than aspen root, and conifer substrate DOC. Furthermore, soils that contained aspen SOC retained new DOC better than soils with conifer SOC, irrespective of the source of the DOC. Finally, foliage and root specific compounds that were identified for aspen and subalpine fir provide a base for future studies aiming to identify the source of SOC under both overstory types.

Overall, the results of the dissertation suggest that substrate chemistry more than detritus fluxes drive the differences between SOC pools under aspen and conifer forests in Utah. This finding indicates that the link between C input amounts and SOC pools is not as direct as currently assumed in most SOC models. Furthermore, a tree species effect on SOC as distinct as aspen vs conifer is not common between all hardwood and conifer comparisons worldwide, thus suggesting that the effect of vegetation can be overridden by other factors.