Contrasting above- and belowground organic matter decomposition and carbon and nitrogen dynamics in response to warming in High Arctic tundra
Tundra regions are projected to warm rapidly during the coming decades. The tundra biome holds the largest terrestrial carbon pool, largely contained in frozen permafrost soils. With warming, these permafrost soils may thaw and become available for microbial decomposition, potentially providing a positive feedback to global warming. Warming may directly stimulate microbial metabolism but may also indirectly stimulate organic matter turnover through increased plant productivity by soil priming from root exudates and accelerated litter turnover rates. Here, we assess the impacts of experimental warming on turnover rates of leaf litter, active layer soil and thawed permafrost sediment in two high-arctic tundra heath sites in NE-Greenland, either dominated by evergreen or deciduous shrubs. We incubated shrub leaf litter on the surface of control and warmed plots for 1 and 2 years. Active layer soil was collected from the plots to assess the effects of 8 years of field warming on soil carbon stocks. Finally, we incubated open cores filled with newly thawed permafrost soil for 2 years in the active layer of the same plots. After field incubation, we measured basal respiration rates of recovered thawed permafrost cores in the lab. Warming significantly reduced litter mass loss by 26% after 1 year incubation, but differences in litter mass loss among treatments disappeared after 2 years incubation. Warming also reduced litter nitrogen mineralization and decreased the litter carbon to nitrogen ratio. Active layer soil carbon stocks were reduced 15% by warming, while soil dissolved nitrogen was reduced by half in warmed plots. Warming had a positive legacy effect on carbon turnover rates in thawed permafrost cores, with 10% higher respiration rates measured in cores from warmed plots. These results demonstrate that warming may have contrasting effects on above- and belowground tundra carbon turnover, possibly governed by microbial resource availability.