Can Carbon Fluxes Explain Differences in Soil Organic Carbon Storage under Aspen and Conifer Forest Overstories?

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Climate- and management-induced changes in tree species distributions are raising questions regarding tree species-specific effects on soil organic carbon (SOC) storage and stability. Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) is the most widespread tree species in North America, but fire exclusion often promotes the succession to conifer dominated forests. Aspen in the Western US have been found to store more SOC in the mineral soil than nearby conifers, but we do not yet fully understand the source of this differential SOC accumulation. We measured total SOC storage (0–50 cm), characterized stable and labile SOC pools, and quantified above- and belowground litter inputs and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) fluxes during snowmelt in plots located in N and S Utah, to elucidate the role of foliage vs. root detritus in SOC storage and stabilization in both ecosystems. While leaf litterfall was twice as high under aspen as under conifers, input of litter-derived DOC with snowmelt water was consistently higher under conifers. Fine root (mm) biomass, estimated root detritus input, and root-derived DOC fluxes were also higher under conifers. A strong positive relationship between root and light fraction C content suggests that root detritus mostly fueled the labile fraction of SOC. Overall, neither differences in above- and belowground detritus C inputs nor in detritus-derived DOC fluxes could explain the higher and more stable SOC pools under aspen. We hypothesize that root–microbe–soil interactions in the rhizosphere are more likely to drive these SOC pool differences.

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