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Roots exert a strong influence on the temperature sensitivityof soil respiration


The temperature sensitivity of soil respiration will largely determine the effects of a warmer world on net carbon flux from soils to the atmosphere. CO2 flux from soils to the atmosphere is estimated to be 50–70 petagrams of carbon per year and makes up 20–38% of annual inputs of carbon (in the form of CO2) to the atmosphere from terrestrial and marine sources1,2. Here we show that, for a mixed temperate forest, respiration by roots plus oxidation of rhizosphere carbon, which together produce a large portion of total effluxed soil CO2, is more temperature-sensitive than the respiration of bulk soil. We determine that the Q10 value (the coefficient for the exponential relationship between soil respiration and temperature, multiplied by ten) is 4.6 for autotrophic root respiration plus rhizosphere decomposition, 2.5 for respiration by soil lacking roots and 3.5 for respiration by bulk soil. If plants in a higher-CO2 atmosphere increase their allocation of photosynthate to roots3,4,5,6 these findings suggest that soil respiration should be more sensitive to elevated temperatures, thus limiting carbon sequestration by soils.

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Figure 1: Soil CO2 efflux per treatment for Harvard Forest litter-manipulation plots.
Figure 2: Relationship, for each treatment, between mean daily soil CO2 flux and soil temperature at 5 cm depth.
Figure 3: Soil CO2 efflux by Julian day for ‘roots’, calculated as the difference in daily mean respiration between the control and no roots plots.
Figure 4: Relationship between mean daily CO2 flux (calculated) from ‘roots’ and soil temperature at 5 cm depth.


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We thank E. Davidson and E. Sundquist for advice on construction of the field system for measuring soil respiration; E. Davidson for help with analysis of soil respiration data: K.Newkirk and F. Bowles for help with the design, fabrication and use of the TDR system; and A. Doyle forcritical review of the manuscript. This work was sponsored by grants from the US NSF Long-Term Ecological Research Program, the Department of Energy NIGEC Program and the US Department of Agriculture Competitive Grants Program.

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Correspondence to Richard D. Boone.

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Boone, R., Nadelhoffer, K., Canary, J. et al. Roots exert a strong influence on the temperature sensitivityof soil respiration. Nature 396, 570–572 (1998).

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