Soil moisture surpasses elevated CO2 and temperature as a control on soil carbon dynamics in a multi-factor climate change experiment

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Some single-factor experiments suggest that elevated CO2 concentrations can increase soil carbon, but few experiments have examined the effects of interacting environmental factors on soil carbon dynamics. We undertook studies of soil carbon and nitrogen in a multi-factor (CO2 × temperature × soil moisture) climate change experiment on a constructed old-field ecosystem. After four growing seasons, elevated CO2 had no measurable effect on carbon and nitrogen concentrations in whole soil, particulate organic matter (POM), and mineral-associated organic matter (MOM). Analysis of stable carbon isotopes, under elevated CO2, indicated between 14 and 19% new soil carbon under two different watering treatments with as much as 48% new carbon in POM. Despite significant belowground inputs of new organic matter, soil carbon concentrations and stocks in POM declined over four years under soil moisture conditions that corresponded to prevailing precipitation inputs (1,300 mm yr−1). Changes over time in soil carbon and nitrogen under a drought treatment (approximately 20% lower soil water content) were not statistically significant. Reduced soil moisture lowered soil CO2 efflux and slowed soil carbon cycling in the POM pool. In this experiment, soil moisture (produced by different watering treatments) was more important than elevated CO2 and temperature as a control on soil carbon dynamics.

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