Letter abstract


Nature Geoscience 3, 336 - 340 (2010)
Published online: 25 April 2010 | doi:10.1038/ngeo846

Subject Categories: Biogeochemistry | Climate science

Soil-carbon response to warming dependent on microbial physiology

Steven D. Allison1, Matthew D. Wallenstein2 & Mark A. Bradford3

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Most ecosystem models predict that climate warming will stimulate microbial decomposition of soil carbon, producing a positive feedback to rising global temperatures1, 2. Although field experiments document an initial increase in the loss of CO2 from soils in response to warming, in line with these predictions, the carbon dioxide loss from soils tends to decline to control levels within a few years3, 4, 5. This attenuation response could result from changes in microbial physiological properties with increasing temperature, such as a decline in the fraction of assimilated carbon that is allocated to growth, termed carbon-use efficiency6. Here we explore these mechanisms using a microbial-enzyme model to simulate the responses of soil carbon to warming by 5°C. We find that declines in microbial biomass and degradative enzymes can explain the observed attenuation of soil-carbon emissions in response to warming. Specifically, reduced carbon-use efficiency limits the biomass of microbial decomposers and mitigates the loss of soil carbon. However, microbial adaptation or a change in microbial communities could lead to an upward adjustment of the efficiency of carbon use, counteracting the decline in microbial biomass and accelerating soil-carbon loss. We conclude that the soil-carbon response to climate warming depends on the efficiency of soil microbes in using carbon.

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  1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Department of Earth System Science, 321 Steinhaus, University of California, Irvine, California 92697, USA
  2. Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, Campus Delivery 1499, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523-1499, USA
  3. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, 370 Prospect Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06511, USA

Correspondence to: Steven D. Allison1 e-mail: allisons@uci.edu



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