Relatively little is known about soil organic carbon (SOC) dynamics in montane ecosystems of the semi-arid western U.S. or the stability of current SOC pools under future climate change scenarios. We measured the distribution and quality of SOC in a mosaic of rangeland-forest vegetation types that occurs under similar climatic conditions on non-calcareous soils at Utah State University’s T.W. Daniel Experimental Forest in northern Utah: the forest types were aspen [Populus tremuloides] and conifer (mixture of fir [Abies lasiocarpa] and spruce [Picea engelmannii]); the rangeland types were sagebrush steppe [Artemisia tridentata], grass-forb meadow, and a meadow-conifer ecotone. Total SOC was calculated from OC concentrations, estimates of bulk density by texture and rock-free soil volume in five pedons. The SOC quality was expressed in terms of leaching potential and decomposability. Amount and aromaticity of water-soluble organic carbon (DOC) was determined by water extraction and specific ultra violet absorbance at 254 nm (SUVA) of leached DOC. Decomposability of SOC and DOC was derived from laboratory incubation of soil samples and water extracts, respectively. Although there was little difference in total SOC between soils sampled under different vegetation types, vertical distribution, and quality of SOC appeared to be influenced by vegetation. Forest soils had a distinct O horizon and higher SOC concentration in near-surface mineral horizons that declined sharply with depth. Rangeland soils lacked O horizons and SOC concentration declined more gradually. Quality of SOC under rangelands was more uniform with depth and SOC was less soluble and less decomposable (i.e., more stable) than under forests. However, DOC in grass-forb meadow soils was less aromatic and more bioavailable, likely promoting C retention through cycling. The SOC in forest soils was notably more leachable and decomposable, especially near the soil surface, with stability increasing with soil depth. Across the entire dataset, there was a weak inverse relationship between the decomposability and the aromaticity of DOC. Our data indicate that despite similar SOC pools, vegetation type may affect SOC retention capacity under future climate projections by influencing potential SOC losses via leaching and decomposition.
H.V. Miegrot et al. 2005. Soil carbon distribution and quality in a montane rangeland-forest mosaic in northern Utah. Forest Ecology and Management. 220 (1-3) 284-299